We should review the role of national examinations

Monday January 4 2016

Brian Maina, a pupil at Kahawa Baptist Academy in Nairobi, is hoisted by his family members after the announcement of KCPE results. He scored 434 marks. The list of about 23,085 students expected to join 103 national schools across the country in February will be presented to schools heads on January 21, 2015. PHOTO | SULEIMAN MBATIAH | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Brian Maina, a pupil at Kahawa Baptist Academy in Nairobi, is hoisted by his family members after the announcement of KCPE results. He scored 434 marks. The list of about 23,085 students expected to join 103 national schools across the country in February will be presented to schools heads on January 21, 2015. PHOTO | SULEIMAN MBATIAH | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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Heads drooped as the text message with results were awaited in rooms across the country, the air filled with expectation.

Will he or won’t she? Any last minute slips or eleventh hour miracles? 

Last week I was on duty gathering stories of the successful few KCPE performers.

Newspapers love national exams.

Smiling young faces celebrating make good front pages.

Kenya’s median age may be late teenage and the bulk of the population can’t vote, but you wouldn’t be tell that from the front page.

The summit of business and politics is occupied by our fathers’ fathers.

The old generation still squats so heavily atop the social pyramid that any break from the wizened faces that dominate our news bulletins is welcome.

The answers of the victors are routine: We want to thank God, family and our teachers, in that order. We will be going to Alliance and Precious Blood, if they will have us.

When we grow up, we will be doctors and pilots and help make Kenya great again.

The parents are the worst bit.

All parents I met were more excited than their children.

There is a vicarious pride in parents seeing their children succeeding, and they always try to appropriate the success.

For one day the mothers and fathers of the successful can pick up a soapbox and give the world advice on how to raise children.

You can sense the giddy excitement as they line up their children for the even bigger hamster wheel that is KCSE.

The few shiny faces of students celebrating are the tip of the iceberg. Only 0.81 per cent of the candidates scored above 400 marks.

There is something to be said about the 99.19 per cent who also did the exam.

It’s a good thing. A heart-warming consolation.

KCPE is a norm-referenced test, which means that it is impossible for everyone to pass.

Even if you all cheat — as some undoubtedly did — there will still be some at the top and others at the bottom.

A few will be at the top, the majority will be clumped around the middle.

Failure is built into the system, so take heart in knowing that the game is rigged against your collective success.

Many of us are scarred by the force-feeding of information that is our education system.

I remember all the indignities of 8-4-4, the whippings I got for not being able to memorise the multiplication tables, the smacking for not being able to write my last name. My education has been an endurance.

I remember the pressure cooker: tests, then mocks, and finally the exams, in a cycle.

First there were the tutors, the educational camps and teachers.

Then came hothousing, the extra homework and the holiday tuition that was banned by the ministry but still continues.

In Form Four I bankrupted myself photocopying all those Alliance/Mangu mock papers that were rumoured to have the inside track on the big one.

I extended my overdraft to the maximum, so mom and dad bought me those study books with prophetic titles.

I had the mandatory self-help sayings stuck on my desk and was schooled in the pointless stratagems of how to actually finish Mathematics Paper 2.

I took wing in a constant updraft of sloganeering from my parents who, quite obviously, had an easier time in their day, to send me soaring ever higher.

Our parents obviously embellished stories of their early victories but we still listened.

I listened to all those gossipy tips from the teacher who was once an exam marker.

I was told to improve my handwriting as no invigilator drunk out of his skull would bother with my scribbling. I was told to stop my windbaggery when writing the history paper and get to the point.

I remember the vomiting and diarrhoea I had for several days during the KCSE exam period.

The exams wait for no man; you either sit them as you are or you don’t.

I remember the constant fear that I would drench an answer sheet in a spew of fluids and how the invigilators would be at a loss as to what to do with an answer sheet soaked in sick.

The deeper fear that I would fail my parents was a mortifying prospect.

They were expecting good results, they kept saying.

I was in a national school where one teacher told us not to bother coming for our results if you got a B! I had my concession speech to my parents ready, in case I didn’t get several As in the exam.

I am sure I wasn’t the only one. My friend was heartbroken and on the verge of tears when he got only 5As out of a possible 8.

How would he explain an A minus in physics to his father, an engineer?

He was in the top one per cent of students, but even that wasn’t enough.

Another friend had an even darker tale.

Her parents had split up when she was young and she had never seen her father, except in a photo.

He showed up at their doorstep for the first time to congratulate her when she was ranked among the top five students nationally in KCPE.

Ah, nothing inspires declarations of paternal love like the hint of intelligence! She responded by dropping her surname and using her mother’s maiden name.

A system that leaves children worried about failing their parents is a failed one.

A system in which parents invest so much in their children’s success is a poisonous one. 
All the time success has to be achieved at the expense of some other student.

To pass KCPE/KCSE someone else must fail; it is the rule.

I find it weird to pray for success in KCSE because on the opposite side of the prayer mat is a request that other students fail.

Nowadays, the starting gun is fired earlier.

We now have ECDE (early child hood education), which we keep being told is the key to later success.

When the future is still very distant for most students, why do they worry so much about it?

I remember the stress, alienation and fear of failure in school — all balanced precariously on emotionally immature children — well.

All the fun bits of school, the memorable parts you meet to reminisce over with classmates, happen outside the classroom.

Inside, classes were a hellish educational arms race.

Many of us hated school and wouldn’t go back even if we had the chance.

It was — and still is — dreadful. The syllabus isn’t appropriate for the purpose and the national exams are patently unfair.

Why do we still have national exams when, clearly, they have caused so much misery across the land?

We need a better system and the syllabus review later on this year is the key.