Massive student failure in 2018 KCSE exam signals system crisis

Thursday December 27 2018

Charles Wanjohi of Giakanja Secondary School celebrates in Nyeri on December 23, 2018 after scoring A- (76 points). PHOTO | GRACE GITAU | NATION MEDIA GROUP


Assume a farmer plants maize in a 10-acre piece of land for five successive years. The farmer expects 100 sacks of the grain at harvest time but the piece of land yields 25 sacks. Now, if the farmer laments and continues to plant in the same piece of land expecting the same results, what sense of judgement propels such a person?

Out of the slightly over 600,000 students who sat the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) examination this year, less than 15 percent qualify for direct entry to university.

A whole 75 percent will have to find alternative education to shape their future. This is just one way of reading the basic result figures.

More students — 30,840 of them — only managed a grade E (a flat failure) than those who scored a combined A, A-, B+ and B, who total 28,403. What is the conclusion here? One in every two students between the best five percent performers and lowest similar segment is, suggestively, daft!

More than half of the candidates (313,057 to be precise) scored a D or D-. Again, the conclusion is the same as performances in the extreme ends of a continuum. One in every two candidates is, looking at the statistics, ‘daft’.



The permutations from the stats generate chilling feelings about the realities in our education system. First, failure of students does not bother the main education stakeholders.

If more than half the students perform so poorly year in, year out and life goes on without stopping to reflect on what that outcome means to the affected children, it is difficult to convince any critical mind the stakeholders have the interest of children at heart.

Secondly, is it really possible that about 350,000 students who did the exams are, in fact, ‘daft’, only managing either a D, D- or E as the figures suggest?

The results from the stats before us defy even the questionable bell curve in grading, in which most students should have been in the C bracket in these results.

Arguably, the huge low performance is seemingly primarily attributable to the students, who must, henceforth, carry the consequence of their failure.

If so, then, we land into the troublesome conclusion that about half of our children in Kenya are, indeed, daft. Strange if we were to buy this argument.


Thirdly, for a student to perform well, it takes the community and the conditions in the community, the school teaching team and the conditions therein and a motivated student.

While cheating may have ballooned positive results in the past, it is difficult to see how the practice would have contributed to the past and, especially, current massive failure.

The more compelling explanation must surely be found elsewhere.

Fourth, it won’t make sense to produce results in which students who pass are more than the university slots. The situation is regrettable. We have more universities than we have students seeking admission.

The paradox is that we do have the children for the universities but they are poorly prepared to undertake exams so they can(not) proceed to university.

Lastly, the bitter truth is that one possible major contributing factor to the mass failure is that teachers are reluctant to commit to teaching because of the poor conditions they have unsuccessfully petitioned the government to improve over the past two decades.


This is clear from the figures provided. More and more private schools perform better than public ones.

Even as we rightfully celebrate the little stars and giant schools who performed brilliantly in the exam, it is important to deeply interrogate the stats. Half the students in a country cannot fail exams and we simply empathise with them; that is absolute irresponsibility, particularly on the part of the government.

Let us face it: The teachers-government antagonism over the past two decades is a significant contributor to such a high number of student failures. Students should not bear the entire burden of failure alone.

To improve student learning towards university education, the government should start by motivating teachers but go beyond that to improve conditions of learning in poorly performing schools.

Dr Mokua, SJ, is the executive director – Jesuit Hakimani Centre. [email protected]