By Ogova Ondego
Published October 22, 2013
Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) examinations started across the country on October 22, 2013. As expected after the results are released by Kenya National Examinations Council (KNEC) in February 2014, tongues will, as usual, wag over the high number of candidates who cannot proceed to the next stage—university—as there are no vacancies for everyone.
A similar thing will have happened three months earlier—December—over Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) examinations results for Class 8 pupils.
Folks, standard curriculum-based examinations at primary and secondary school levels have been contentious issues in Kenya for a long time. While proponents of uniform curricula have argued in its favour—that it is good as it promotes competition, better learning and ensures that only the best candidates get the limited vacancies available—opponents have maintained that it retards creativity among learners. Kenya’s is a case of too many candidates chasing after too few vacancies in schools and advocates of standardised national exams may be vindicated by this. But then, this debate isn’t confined to Kenya.
In USA, where it was estimated in 1997 that as many as 80 million high school graduates could not write a proper letter explaining an error on a credit card bill, the then US President Bill Clinton had advocated a state-wide or national curriculum-based tests at elementary and high school levels to remedy the situation. Many observers around the world were flabbergasted: If US learners had any problem at all, it was that they were spoilt for choice. Why would the President be in favour of uniform exams when there was no need to sieve out candidates?
To resolve the imbroglio of whether uniform exams are good for students, Business Week, a US magazine reported that Cornell University had conducted a survey at how students from various countries performed on international tests on science and mathematics. The researcher, John Bishop, discovered that students from countries that have standardized mandatory exams outperformed those from countries which lack such tests, performing at a grade level higher in both subjects. Those tested in this 3rd International Mathematics and Science Study were 7th and 8th graders (equivalent of Kenya’s Classes 7 and 8) from 39 countries in 1994 and 1995. Three years earlier, an analysis of the International Assessment of Educational Progress administered to 8th graders from 15 countries had yielded similar results, according to Business Week.
John Bishop’s report says that students from Canadian provinces mandating standard curriculum-based exams outperform those from provinces that lack such tests. But perhaps what these results have not said is whether excelling in examinations is synonymous with learning.
Critics of standardised exams like Kenya’s contend that the curriculum reduces learners to cramming machines whose preoccupation is passing exams as an end in itself. By cramming, opponents argue, students do not learn much. They point out that for Kenya to develop, all young people should receive higher education and not just those who ‘excel’ in national exams.
Welcome to the debate.