The 18-year-old Besufikad Yeta made his way to the National Educational Assessment & Examination Service on King George St. mid-day last week to see if he could correct the misspelt name on his school-leaving exam certificate.

Although the social science student used to be a top-ranking student in his formative years at Ayer Amba Secondary School, he is one of the 818,410 students who failed to acquire a passing mark for higher education.

"I guessed every answer," he said.

His fizzling interest in schoolwork was vividly captured in the result, which reads 200 out of 700 points. But Besufikad seems indifferent about it. He claimed to have been losing interest after witnessing his seniors struggle to find employment even after graduating.

"I could not bother being interested afterwards," he told Fortune.

Instead, Besufikad has been taking carpentry and sewing courses in search of life outside the typical education career path he finds ill-suited to his interests.

School leaving examination results have been in a downward spiral following the introduction of a stringent testing schedule two years ago, which entailed moving students to novel locations for five days.

While it has become a source of anxiety for students and parents, officials claim the move has prevented cheating while administering tight control on the printing and formulation of questions, evidenced by the results.

The spotlight on the failed education system has come to light as the Education Minister Berhanu Nega (Prof) spells out doom and gloom while breaking down the "shocking" scores.

The vicious cycle continued declining by 0.6pc this year.

Out of the 3,106 schools that seated students for the exam nationwide, 42pc did not have a single person that could make the cut to join the universities.

The results seem to have not surprised education authorities, who believe years of problems had piled up only to be revealed by the change in testing modalities.

Umer Imam, head of the education curriculum at the Ministry of Education, points to sub-standard secondary schools, unqualified instructors and inadequate facilities as long-term issues that require a significant overhaul.

"This is expected at least for the next five years," said Umer, underscoring, "It has to get worse before it gets better."

He attributes the dismal results to diminishing student interest compounded by weak education standards, which is currently under reform. Umer believes the new curriculum, which includes agriculture, emphasises societal values to remedy the prevailing education crisis.

"Fears of an unemployed mass cannot come at the cost of competent students," he told Fortune.

Schools like the nearly decade-old Harmony Hill, which had 35 students pass from 116 examinees, are puzzled by the results.

Principal Mulat Debesh did not expect such results and blames the confluence of the pandemic and the transportation of the students into new locations for examination contributed to the low blow.

"They were ambushed by unfamiliar people." he told Fortune.

The exam content appears fair for Abenezer Getachew from South West School who scored 530 in natural science field.

He attributes the failure rates to be mainly a result of a lack of preparation. He said the questions were not overreaching, claiming he could have gotten a higher grade if he had studied as much as he wanted.

"I want a career in computer science, so I studied hard," he told Fortune.

Although private schools generally perform better in national exams, their expensive tuition fees are a push factor for parents.

The 18-year-old Bezawit Abebe's hopes of joining the university shattered when she learned of her 210 score. Although she noticed a reluctance from teachers Bezawit claimed to have studied all year.

"We [students] relied on each other more than teachers," she told Fortune.

Her mother, Abebech Belay, can only afford to send her daughter to public schools marred by declining quality issues. She believes the school did not nurture her daughter's ability fully let alone unleash hidden potential.

"My daughter worked hard but failed," said the heartbroken Abebech.

Bezawit suspects some mistake had prevailed as she was a top 10 scorer at Beshale Secondary School and did not foresee failure as an option.

However, according to Eshetu Kebede (PhD), who heads the Examination Service, the marking was done by an Optical Mark Reader (OMR), and a high correlation in the results of students indicates that the evaluation was statistically sound.

Amidst the staggering failure rates, a glimmer of hope has flashed in boarding establishments, which account for four of the five schools that managed to pass all their students.

One of the 40 establishments, the Dessie Special Boarding School located in Amhara Regional State had all its 56 students pass, registering 646, the second highest national score.

Built by the renowned founding shareholder of Flint Stone Homes, Tsedeke Yihune, the five-year-old school has peculiar selection criteria for both students and teachers.

Students must score above 85pc on the school's entrance examination, while those who manage to complete their post-graduate study by cutting above 3.5 GPA are employed.

Vice principal Fikir Belay points to the rigorous schedule of the students, which starts at 7:00am with a six-hour class session followed by mandatory attendance at the library as one of its identifying features.

"We strictly monitor their smartphone use," said the proud vice principal.

He said managing to centre their attention on school work helped them pass with flying colours despite the rumbling sounds of weapons during the examinations. While Fikir expressed apprehensions over the monthly wages of instructors, which hovers around 13,000 Br he states, "Most do it out of passion".

The Ministry has picked up on the performance of the boarding schools, revealing plans to build 13 in the coming year to fix the cocktail of malaises that haunt the education architecture.

"Things won't change in one night," said Yohannes Wogaso, head of education program and quality improvement at the Ministry.

He believes the storm has been brewing for several years and requires more than a quick brush-up while pointing to the importance of subsuming needless subjects, continuous assessment of teachers and improving the curriculum all the way from elementary school.

"Most could not even spell," he told Fortune in reference to competence assessments conducted by the Ministry.

One of the catalysts for the spirited campaign for educational reform was student evaluations conducted every four years in partnership with the National Educational Assessment & Examination Service (EAES).

Head of the Department, Ifu Gurmu (PhD) revealed that the performance has declined over the past decade, with results in 2018 indicating an average score of 30pc out of 4,236 students evaluated.

"It's no surprise these students would fail the national exam," he told Fortune.

The shocking result this year averages around 27.8 nationwide.

Of the five schools that achieved over 95pc pass percentile is the 64-year-old St. Joseph School. With a top score of 626 and failure of four out of the 163 students, the all-male Catholic school has remained at the forefront in the capital.

Yonas Urbanos, academic director of the high school, points to well-equipped infrastructure, the strong bond between teachers and students and veteran staff with a minimum of a decade of experience to the school's success.

"Hiring fresh graduate teachers does not work for us," he said.

Yonas is concerned over the rise of social media use, which he believes is one of the culprits for four of his students failing. He stated: "It's pulling their minds off formal education".

The academic director also expressed fears over the delayed delivery of textbooks to the 826 students at St. Joseph, along with a sense of anxiety about what he feels is a rushed reform to the curriculum.

The prevailing concern of insufficient infrastructure has been a topic not only among citizens but also policymakers and executives. The reforms championed by Minister of Education, Berhanu Nega (Prof), ever since his ascension to power have split opinions down the middle.

The Ministry has not begun delivery of textbooks to high school students two months into the school year, even though Berhanu revealed that 249 containers have arrived at Djibouti ports to be rationed at one book for four students.

While some Parliamentarians point to the inevitability of sacrifices to reform education, others find the process rushed and inconsiderate of the pervasive shortage of supplies and infrastructure.

The Minister's appearance before the Standing Committee on Human Resource Development, Employment & Technology Affairs last week resulted in a fiery debate over who should establish independent research into the dismal examination results of the year.

Berhanu insisted that the examinations merely revealed the dire conditions of education in the country.

"We have seen ourselves naked for the first time," he told Parliament.

In a blunt statement he told Parliament that "Everybody is responsible for the failure," which prompted the Committee Chair Negeri Lencho (PhD) to say, "Well, that is basically saying no one is responsible."

Parliamentary drama does little to soothe the pangs of education researchers who suggest the problem has historical precedence, with the new generation of 12th graders being mere victims of a failed system.

Alemayehu Hailemariam observes the classic reliance on career education has changed due to several socio-economic and technological developments.

"It will be a long process," he told Fortune, pointing to the experience of Eastern European countries who crafted strategic changes through decades.

He recommends wage incentives to attract better teachers, incorporating technology to aid the teaching-learning process and a sense of urgency by the next round of examinees to prevent another catastrophe.

"Students need to believe in the power of education," said Alemayehu, "Even though the value society places on it decreases".

The prospects of the 96.8pc students that failed this year have turned towards technical skills development.

Training offered by the 1,334 Technical Educational Vocational Training (TVET) for options in alternate career paths. However, many are abandoning that as well.

Moedin Abamoga, head of training and institutional capacity at the Ministry of Labour & Skills, revealed that the four-year program at the TVET had disincentivised students from joining.

"They don't want to stay for long," he told Fortune.

Moedin revealed that only a fifth of the number of students expected last year showed despite public TVET having 50,000 instructors ready to serve the 600,000 possible newcomers. Despite the quadrupling of programs in the past two decades, specialisation in the labour force has been minor, according to Moedin.

"We are now working to create links to industries," he said.

PUBLISHED ON Oct 21,2023 [ VOL 24 , NO 1225]

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