The traumatizing results that were registered in the Ethiopian School Leaving Exam raise more questions than answers, yet most commentators, even the most discerning ones, appear too eager to explain away the results and clamor for quick-fix solutions. The results showing that just 3.3 percent of nearly 900,000 students had passed the exam are truly outrageous and extremely 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 engulfed the nation, and recriminations are all too rife at the moment. Caution and diligence are needed in how the event is gauged and interpreted and how we chart a way forward, both immediately and in the long term.
Where such freakishly extreme outcomes occur, one expects a comprehensive review and inquiry across the content, process, and context of the event in question. As the Minister of Education, Berhanu Nega (Prof.), pronounced, the outcome constitutes no less than a national crisis. As such, one would expect any fitting response to start with a swift and thoroughgoing inquiry, no less than by the nation’s Parliament.
But it seems to me that most of the talk has already moved on from these issues and is now focused on any set of easy-to-find and convenient explanations, such as “chronic decline of education standards,” “cheating and malpractice that has been stopped by the strict procedures of the current exam,” “morally decrepit youth,” etc., to complain about the unseemly results.
I would like to call for a more cautious and evidence-led process. Alas, the fate of thousands hangs in the balance, in what is also a huge test for how the country sizes up and addresses this major crisis; a “focusing event,” as they say. In other words, the credibility of the governing class is at stake here: whether an evidence-based and meticulous process comes out of all the uproar or if hasty generalizations and pronouncements rule the day.
Content: review of the exam
In a post-hoc inquiry into such anomalous events, a natural starting place would be the event itself—in this case, both the outcome and content of the exam. The Minister has indeed showcased a fair amount of the harrowing statistics that describe the results. However, the data still leaves out some crucial information that should help contextualize and interpret the exam results more clearly.
To grasp the full picture, it is usually requisite that data 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 one needs the data from previous years to characterize this “fall” more meaningfully. Has it always been a 50 percent cut-off that has been used as the threshold for admitting students to university? What has been the distribution of achievements over the years across all grade bands?
Examining past 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 have pointed towards rampant cheating behavior in previous years, thereby implying that the 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. An analysis of the distribution of results over the years could shed light on trends of clustering of similar grades (due to collusion and cheating)—thereby calling out particularly problematic years.
Based on such analysis, one may be able to draw conclusions about test centers that may have aided and abetted widespread cheating. In any case, digging deeper into the multi-year data and generating critical insights would be critical.
The other main object of review should be the exam questions, that is, assessing their relative make-up and level of difficulty in comparison to previous years. In other words, are there significant and systematic differences between this year’s exam and those of previous years in form, structure, and difficulty levels?
To this end, a multidisciplinary team of educators and pedagogy experts could be called upon to evaluate and analyze the exam; the gravity of the situation and the oddity of the results call for that.
The analysis of multi-year statistics that I called for earlier could also be insightful in determining whether this exam has been exceptionally hard. For example, are there systematic differences across years in terms of the highest grades achieved, the number of students who obtained distinction grades, etc.? If significantly fewer students achieved top marks this year than any other year, it can be assumed that the exam might have been too hard 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 all part of the necessary due diligence when faced with such outliers of outcomes or events.
Context and process:
What was the process of setting these exams? Has it veered in any way from previous years? To note, the exams have been overseen by a 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 notion of a clean break from the “past.” Are there any new procedures that have been instituted that may have affected the exams and how they were set? Any good forensic analyst would need to ask such questions.
In terms of the procedures involved in administering the exam, the process of transporting students en masse and hosting them in the university dormitories has been nothing short of an extraordinary step. At the press conference, a journalist had asked a question about the probable impacts of such new arrangements on the mental readiness of students, which 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.”
Exams, on the other hand, are well documented as a delicate process with serious consequences for students’ mental health and performance on the day. Being the first experiment of its kind, the hauling of students to universities for the exams would not have gone without difficulties, in turn affecting students’ mental states.
Have students had the necessary provisions for undisturbed sleep, enough days to acclimate, reading spaces, psychosocial support, etc.? It is imperative that we investigate any potential effects wrought by this extraordinary process.
Finally, any due assessment and action cannot overlook the broader context of the past three years, during which the country has endured the gruesome war in northern Ethiopia and many other conflicts. The conflicts have been a totalizing, all-consuming experience for all Ethiopians.
Beyond the immediate devastation of the conflicts, the population has been gripped by a whirlwind of grave news and incessant propaganda, hardly an ideal condition for students’ psyche and performance.
No one denies the chronic and intractable problems faced by the education sector in Ethiopia, especially in terms of the deteriorating quality of education at all levels. Quality metrics have clearly lagged behind the major strides made in terms of 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 rather to well-thought-out, structured, and strategic actions.
Hence, we should resist the urge to invoke the broader and more entrenched systemic challenges to explain and motivate action on the exam results. Rather, we need to take stock of this year’s exam results empirically, comparing them with those of preceding years and developing insights as to what may have given rise to these strange results. This way, 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.
Contributed by Henock Taddese (PhD)