Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Shocking school leaving exam results emblematic of nation’s ills

Ethiopians are still reeling from the shocking national school leaving examination results announced by the Educational Assessment and Examinations Services (EAES) last week.  Only 3.3 percent of the 896,520 Grade 12 students who sat for the national school leaving examination for the 2021-22 academic year managed to score the required 50 percent and above to pursue their university education. Some of the figures released in a briefing by the Minister of education, Professor Berhanu Nega, right after the results were pronounced make for a grim reading.  In the natural sciences stream only 22,936 students or 3.6 percent out of the 339,642 who took the exams passed the 50 percent mark. Likewise, the pass rate for students in the social sciences stream was a mind-boggling 1.3 percent with only 6,973 students from 556,878 who sat for the exams able to score above 50 percent. Moreover, some 1,161 schools failed to field even a single student who can go on to join tertiary institutions, representing a staggering 39.2 percent of the 2,959 schools that sat students for the exams. The ramifications of the picture these astounding numbers paint are momentous and call for a great deal of soul-searching.

Professor Berhanu said the dismal results are a manifestation of the host of shortcomings which he said the education sector had been saddled with for years now. He is not alone in this assessment.  Experts in the field have long argued that Ethiopia’s education policy, which has been in force since 1994, is one of the major factors  saying the focus on expanding the coverage of education at a breakneck speed came at the price of quality. Although the policy has undeniably led to some commendable outcomes over the past few decades, it has been buffeted by a plethora of problems both intrinsic and extraneous to the sector. These include, among others, the spill-over effects of ethnic strife; the overt politicization of the education system which has not only undermined meritocracy, but also led to lack of accountability; the absence of adequate educational facilities and materials; corruption; and the poor quality and working conditions of teachers. Consequently, as appalling as the results may be, they did not surprise watchers who had long sounded the alarm over these troubling developments.

The implications of the dreadful results of the 2021-2022 national exams are far and wide. First, the intake of freshman students of both public and private tertiary learning institutions will be drastically below their capacity. Second, if, as expected, the percentage of students who pass the exams continue to be low for some time to come, Ethiopia will be hard pressed to meet its target of raising the gross enrolment of higher education ratio of 22 percent, up from the current 13 percent, as part of its drive to join the rank of lower middle-income countries by 2025. It will also dent the quantity and quality of workforce needed to join the labor market. The fate of the large number of students who will not be eligible to enroll in universities is a further area which entails serious socio-political consequences.  Unless the government and the wider education community seek creative ways that help these students turn into productive citizens, the already high level of youth unemployment and the attendant political resentment will be exacerbated.   

While the national school leaving exam results have understandably evoked deep emotions, the way forward is not and cannot be to dwell unnecessarily on who is to blame. If all stakeholders of the education sector demonstrate a genuine commitment to address the root causes behind the multi-faceted factors that have led to this year’ disastrous showing, there is no reason why it’s impossible to turn the adversity they represent into an opportunity.  The responsibility of tackling the poor state of education in Ethiopia primarily rests with the ministry of education and regional education bureaus. However, as they alone cannot overcome the challenge given its scope and complexity, it’s of the essence that all stakeholders play an active role in the search for solutions. Towards this end it is imperative to undertake a raft of steps aimed at arresting the rot this year’s results have manifestly exposed. These measures must be geared towards engaging in a comprehensive review of the factors that account for the sorry state of Ethiopian education and map out a well-considered policy and strategy that take into account the existing local and global realities; undertaking a rigorous evaluation of the administration of education with a view to ensure accountability and the delivery of quality education; availing the necessary human, financial and material resources for the sector insofar as capacity permits; and galvanizing popular support for a cause that will have an enduring impact in terms of assuring a better future for future generations. 

One would be sorely mistaken to think that education is the only sector Ethiopia has failed at. The country has been suffering for far too long from deep fractures in the political, economic and social spheres, endangering not only lives but also long-term livelihoods. It has seen more than its fair share of deadly conflicts, displacements, insecurity, divisive political narratives, extreme ethno-nationalism; corruption, stunting of institutions of democracy, poverty, mismanagement of the economy,  erosion of moral values, and feuding within religious and social institutions for several decades.  The first step in mending these fractures is to own up to them. Trying to sweep them under the rug or rationalize them away is counterproductive and bound to worsen the problem. Needless to say, the depth of the challenges means they cannot be overcome in a single stroke and as such requires a long-term strategy concerted effort on the part of each and every citizen.

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