Are We Asking the Right Questions about Appaling School Leaving Exam Results?

Feb 11 , 2023
By Henock Taddesse , Semira Abdelmenan (PhD)

We should not be compelled towards drastic actions in hasty reactions to the shocking news of the high school exam results. Instead, we need to undertake careful empirical synthesis, comparing them with preceding years and developing critical insights on what may have given rise to the strange outcome. We may arrive at well-thought-out actions that are fair, take corrective action and alleviate the distress caused by the results, write Henock Taddese (PhD); and Semira Abdelmenan (PhD)

The Ethiopian School Leaving Exam results raise more questions than answers. Yet, most commentators, even the most discerning, appear too eager to explain away the results and clamour for quick-fix solutions. The results that just 3.3pc of nearly 900,000 students had passed the exam are truly outrageous and highly distressing, not just to the students and their families but to anyone who is even remotely acquainted with education’s central role in human development and social progress.

The shock has indeed engulfed the country; recriminations are all too rife.

Where such freakishly extreme outcomes occur, one expects a comprehensive review and inquiry across the event’s content, process and context. As the Minster of Education, Berhanu Nega (PhD), pronounced, the outcome constitutes no less than a national crisis. As such, one would expect any fitting response to begin with a swift and thoroughgoing inquiry, no less than by the country’s Parliament.

However, it appears that the predominant discussions have already moved on from any such considerations, rather being pre-occupied with any set of easily pluckable and convenient explanations: ‘chronic deterioration of education standards’, ‘cheating and malpractices that have only been reined in through the strict procedures of the current exam’, and ‘morally decrepitude youth.’ All too convenient and to readily available lamentations of the unseemly results.

Alas! The fate of thousands hangs in the balance. At the same time, this is a considerable test for how the country sizes up and addresses a major crisis, a ‘focusing event’ as they say. The credibility of the governing class is at stake, whether an evidence-based and meticulous process comes out of all the uproar or if hasty generalisations and pronouncements continue to rule the day, sealing the fate of thousands in the process.

In a post-hoc inquiry of such an anomalous event, an apparent starting place would be the event itself: in this case, the exam's outcome and content should be carefully examined.

The Minister of Education has showcased a fair amount of harrowing stats to describe the results. However, the data still leaves out some crucial information that should help contextualise and interpret the exam results more sharply. Specifically, to grasp the complete picture, data must be presented in comparison with trends from previous years - which was, unfortunately, lacking from the announcements.

How steep is the fall? One imagines it to be very steep – but it becomes challenging to characterise and gauge meaningfully without access to the multi-year data.

Has it always been a 50 cut-off that has been used as a threshold for admitting students into university? What has been the distribution of achievements, over the years, across all grade bands?

Examining the multi-year data would also help substantiate or clarify claims that widespread cheating and malpractice have been at play in previous years’ achievements. The Minster, and many commentators since, point towards rampant cheating behaviour in previous years, implying that the observed slump in results is due to the more stringent invigilation protocols instituted this year. This year’s exams have been administered under stricter conditions in more central locations, away from students’ schools and familiar grounds.

However, is this enough to explain the unprecedented proportion of students who have failed the exam this year?

Analysis of the distribution of results over the years could shed light on any tendencies of clustering similar grades (due to collusion and cheating), thereby calling out particularly problematic years and test centres. From such analysis, one can make inferences about any test centres that may have aided and abetted widespread cheating practices. For what it is worth, analysis of the multi-year data would put things into perspective and enable validation of any explanatory claims, such as the one about widespread cheating in previous years.

The other main object of such a review should be the relative makeup and level of difficulty of the exam questions compared to previous years.

Are there significant and systematic differences between this year’s exam and those of previous years - in terms of form, structure and difficulty levels?

A multidisciplinary team of educators and pedagogy experts could be called upon to evaluate and analyse the exam. The gravity of the situation and the ‘freakiness’ of the results call for that. Additionally, the multi-year stats analysis could be insightful in determining whether this exam has been exceptionally hard.

Are there systematic differences in the highest grades achieved and the number of students who obtained distinction grades?

If significantly fewer students achieved top marks this year than in other years, it could be supposed that the exam might have been too complicated or simply harder than in previous years. It may be too tempting to forego such painstaking evaluation for the readily available grand explanatory factors; however, it is only proper and part of necessary due diligence when faced with such a shocking outlier of an outcome.

What was the process of setting these exams? Has it veered in any way from previous years?

To note, the exams have indeed been overseen by new leadership at the helm of the Ministry, which has been proclaiming the dawning of higher standards in education. It is also a leadership that has invoked the notions of a clean break from the ‘past’.

Were any new procedures instituted that may have affected the exams and how they were set?

All the new rhetoric around higher standards may have also inadvertently seeped into the exam-setting process – ‘discourse’ casts its shadow in mysterious ways, including how the state functionaries may perceive expectations set by the top brass. Any good forensic analysis would need to ask such questions and subject the exam to complete evaluation before the grand theories can be invoked to explain away these results.

Transporting students en masse and hosting them in university dormitories has been nothing short of an extraordinary step. At the press conference, a journalist asked about the probable impacts of all the new arrangements on students’ mental states. It was unfortunately batted away in jest: “they [students] are adults, not kids suckling their mothers’ breasts, and so should be able to handle such adaptations.”

However, it has been widely documented how delicate process exams are and how fraught with implications for students’ mental health and performance on the day. Being the first experiment of its kind, hauling students to universities for the exams would not have gone without difficulties, affecting students’ mental states in myriad ways.

Have students had the necessary provisions for undisturbed sleep, enough days to acclimatise, reading spaces, and psychosocial support?

We must seek to investigate any potential effects wrought by this extraordinary process.

Any due assessment and action cannot overlook the context of the past three years when the country endured the gruesome war in the north and many other conflicts. These have been a totalising, whole-consuming experience for Ethiopians: a national trauma. Beyond the immediate carnage, devastation and suffering caused by the conflicts, the population has been gripped in a whirlwind of grave news and incessant propaganda, hardly an ideal condition for exam readiness.

No one denies the chronic and intractable problems faced by the education sector in Ethiopia, especially the deteriorating quality of education at all levels. Quality metrics have lagged behind the significant strides made in expanding access. However, like all chronic and systemic problems (aptly called ‘wicked problems’), deficits in education quality do not lend themselves to radical solutions but to well-thought-out, structured and strategic actions. Hence, we should resist the urge to invoke the broader and entrenched systemic challenges to jump to conclusions in explaining these exam results.

Neither should we motivate drastic actions in haste. Instead, we need to take stock of this year’s exam results empirically, comparing them with preceding years and developing insights into what may have given rise to the strange outcome. We may arrive at well-thought-out actions that are fair, take corrective action and alleviate the distress caused by the results. In the eyes of posterity, we would do well to thoroughly appraise these unfortunate results and take remedial measures that show sensitivity to all realities, as well as being guided by good pedagogical theory and practice.

Many seem to imply that too many people are joining universities ’nowadays’ and that this is the problem somehow. Yes, so many more may be enrolling in universities than ever before – the gross tertiary education enrolment ratio has spiked up from less than one percent in 1994 to around 10pc in almost three decades. This figure, however, compares very poorly with the global average of 32pc; Ethiopia remains one of the countries with the lowest tertiary education enrolments globally.

It is vital that we do not lose perspective here – we must continue to expand access to higher education in one of the least served places in the world, of course, whilst also focusing on quality improvement across different levels of learning. Let’s not invoke the notion that the growing enrolments are a problem, ‘upon whose curtailment the problems related to quality would vanish’. Quality is a multifaceted concern that needs to be addressed through strategic and long-term actions.

The shocking school leaving exam results present an opportunity for us to re-examine our education system, of course, but immediate actions regarding the current results should be taken with a robust examination of the exam content, process and context.

PUBLISHED ON Feb 11,2023 [ VOL 23 , NO 1189]

By Henock Taddesse ( He can be reached at ) , Semira Abdelmenan (PhD) ( Semira Abdelmenan (PhD) )

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