Case for scrapping of terminal national exams

Saturday February 21 2009

By MAKAU MUTUA

Every year, the country is treated to national spectacles in which KCPE and KSCE results are released to great fanfare. The media are awash with reports and pictures of conquering students and their jubilant families.

Superficially, this orgy of celebration looks pleasantly intoxicating. But you need not be a genius to scratch below the surface and ask some hard questions to realise that such irrational exuberance is unwarranted and bad for the nation.

For reasons that are difficult to argue with, I am asking Prof Sam Ongeri, the minister for Education, to come up with a plan for the government to scrap national examinations. The concept of national examinations and the release of the results are bad for education.

Take a very deep breath. I am not proposing that we abolish the educational system! I am suggesting that we reform the educational system if we hope to provide a truly first class education to our progeny.

We need a truly national conversation about the logic of terminal national examinations and the perverse effects of releasing and celebrating the results from those exams. I agree that there is some instant gratification – for the students and parents who emerge at the top of the heap – from the results.

But the predictably skewed regional and socio-economic patterns of the results send wrong messages. Even worse, the celebrations suggest that the examinations are a type of a sport!

My experience says it all. When I was a child growing up in Kitui, I first went to several schools before eventually settling in at Katyethoka Primary School where I sat my national primary school examinations.

I cannot recall how many pupils were in my final year class, but my guess was around 50. We had been together for almost seven years, but we knew that the national primary school examinations would separate the wheat from the chaff!

In other words, we knew that this would be the end of the road for most of us, and a rare opportunity for a very select few to advance. We also knew that the chosen few who advanced would most likely join the elite in society.

On the day of the examinations, we arrived early, pressed shorts and shirts, pencils, pens, and erasers in hand. These were our weapons of war. As we saw it, our lives would either be terminated right there and then, or we would survive to fight another day.

Even though I was a very good pupil, I was a total nervous wreck not knowing what to expect. But like a soldier going into war not knowing whether they would come back alive, I did what President Jomo Kenyatta preached to the nation – pump your chest and plunge right ahead or, as he used to put it in Kiswahili, weka kifua mbele na hayo mengine nyuma!

After the primary examinations, we went home to anxiously await the results. On the fateful day, I knew I had done very well when neighbours streamed into my home to tell us that I had scored three misonge or huts! Musonge was the local Kikamba euphemism for an “A” which is the shape of a hut!

There was ululation and then I was carried high! Shortly thereafter, I learnt that I had been admitted to several high schools. But sadly, I believe that only one other pupil – a male – from my class of 50 gained admission to high school. The other 48 had been declared unworthy by the system.

Figure this – only four per cent of my primary school class made it to high school! The other 96 per cent were declared expendable by society. It is in that context the celebration over my misonge was completely narcissistic.

Nothing has changed since then. The KPCE examinations are a national guillotine that denies youngsters the opportunity to get an education. How can we determine the future of a child – most are under the age of 15 when they take the KCPE – on the basis of one, repeat ONE, examination out of an eight-year course of study?

Suppose the child is a bad test taker, or she is having a bad day? Are we to condemn them to a life of squalor and obscurity because of a single examination?

Scientific studies have conclusively established that youngsters are immature in their teen years and that many blossom much later. Should the system be cutting children off even before they figure out what they are supposed to be doing?

There is no defensible logic for admission into high school on one silly national examination. We should abolish the national examination and use cumulative performance for the eight years to gauge a student’s ability. The performance in every term would count towards a final grade point average at the end of the eight-year period of study.

In deciding which high school children should be admitted into, the system should weigh the academic record together with other extra-curricular strengths such as sports, music, diversity, socio-economic status, region, and other socially relevant classifications. The default position ought to be that every child that successfully completes primary school gets a chance to go to high school.

But you know what? A sharper guillotine awaits those who make it to high school if they want a college education. Since there are far fewer colleges than high schools, the knife is sharper, and only a tiny, miniscule percentage can get into Kenyan colleges.

Another smaller minority with money is able to buy its way into colleges abroad. The rest are consigned into a heap without prospects for higher education or personal advancement.

No nation can develop in the 21st century if it structures the educational system to weed out its youth. If the problem is a scarcity of more colleges, then I suggest we figure out a way to build them.

A system that judges its youth – the most precious national resource – on a single examination only seeks to educate a tiny elite, not the masses. It is morally indefensible and suicidal for the nation. Such a system seeks to teach students how to take an examination – it does not educate them.

Makau Mutua is dean and SUNY Distinguished professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo Law School and chair of Kenya Human Rights Commission.