Wednesday, February 21, 2024
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Navigating the entrance exam quandary: Begging the question of “Back to the Basics”

It has been a while since we last witnessed a breaking news report on the Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation (EBC) regarding the results of the higher education entrance exam. Unfortunately, due to personal reasons and persistent power interruptions, we were unable to fully delve into the additional explanations provided by the Ministry of Education, which were crucial for a comprehensive understanding.

The analogy of “back to the basics” may evoke memories of a similar approach employed in the United States during the 1970s and 1980s. It sought to address the deficiencies students faced in reading, comprehension, and calculation, which were perceived as missing links in the educational system.

The objective was to bridge these gaps by emphasizing foundational skills, enabling students to acquire higher-level capabilities and knowledge, ultimately preparing them to thrive in an ever-evolving world.

The notion of returning to the basics remained a prominent concern until it was overshadowed by a more galvanizing call to action known as “A Nation at Risk.” This nationwide movement, spearheaded by the National Commission on Excellence in Education and officially supported by the US Department of Education in 1983, underscored the imperative need for educational reform.

Whether the current challenges we face can be equated to the two pivotal educational movements that emerged in response to the education crisis in the US requires further investigation on our part. However, one thing remains evident. The question of “back to the basics?” may not be an exaggeration considering the state of our education system. This concern extends beyond just primary and secondary education. Although it has been kept in silence, the problem may run deeper, potentially trapping the system in a vicious cycle.

Furthermore, determining whether we can adopt the overarching concern of “A Nation at Risk” as our educational agenda demands not only further research but also a comparative analysis of student achievements that can serve as a benchmark.

Currently, Ethiopia is not a member of any regional blocs on the continent that assess learning achievements at specific stages of education, be it at the end of primary or secondary education. Additionally, we are not part of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries that regularly evaluate their students’ learning outcomes through the globally recognized Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which would provide a more solid foundation for decision-making.

Therefore, labeling the current entrance exam results as “at risk” remains uncertain due to the lack of conclusive evidence. However, this does not imply that there are no existing problems that pose risks or go beyond the scope of the discussed risks. On the other hand, the issues we have been grappling with for decades demand further investigation.

Concerns voiced by individuals from all walks of life regarding the quality and standards of education necessitate the development of strategies to bring about change in the education sector as a whole, particularly in terms of learning achievements at all levels. This is where the concept of “back to the basics” gains significance.

The impact of the university entrance exam goes beyond just students and their parents; it is a matter of concern for all educational institutions and the government. Even school teachers, who tirelessly work throughout the year, albeit to varying degrees, are not immune to the psychological repercussions. One alternate perspective they may hold is that many of them might be aware of the loopholes that contributed to the outcomes of the entrance exam, but were unable to address them within the confines of their professional capacity.

Nevertheless, the issue at hand has grown into a colossal problem, reaching a point of no return over time unless swift intervention takes place, not by a single entity but through a national mobilization involving all institutions and members of society.

A nation like ours, with limited resources, cannot afford anything other than a different approach to reverse the ongoing decline in educational quality in both the short and long terms. The longer we wait, the higher the cost we will pay. There is no time to waste in assigning blame to individuals, as all of us—educational institutions, teachers, parents, students, the community, and the government—have played a role, to some extent or another, in contributing to the current state of affairs.

We must all work together to bring about a true renaissance in the education sector. Not only is this beneficial for the education sector itself, but it is also a response to the nation’s development. In this competitive world, where a nation’s human capital plays a crucial role, education and training are key elements not only for enhancing competitiveness but also for ensuring the survival of a nation.

However, it must be acknowledged that there is no magic recipe readily available to address the issues at hand, as the education sector of this country has been burdened with a backlog of challenges dating back to the Second World War.

Reports, written documents, and books serve as living testimonies to this fact. For instance, works such as Maaza Bekele’s (1966/68), The Education Sector Review (1972), The Evaluative Research on the General Education System of Ethiopia (ERGESE 1983), Tekeste’s The Crisis of Ethiopian Education and From the Crisis to the Brink of Collapse (1990, 2006), The Education and Training Policy (1994), and the recent Education Road Map, have all been significant warning signs.

International agencies such as UNICEF and the World Bank have repeatedly highlighted the precarious situation regarding the quality of education. The World Bank’s summary report, for instance, expressed concerns about the “disappointing” levels of student learning.

UNICEF, in a recent press release, added: “Although most children enroll in school, many do not progress, with only 33.1 percent making it to secondary school. The quality of learning is also a major challenge, with 90 percent of 10-year-olds unable to read or understand a simple text-based sentence. The likelihood of children attending school, staying in school, and performing well is significantly lower in rural settings.”

Going further, in an unpublished article submitted to a university, I characterized Ethiopian education as a “war education” since the introduction of modern education. Historians, veteran educators, and politicians can provide rich accounts of this, while the reality remains evident.

For years, scarce but irreplaceable national resources have not only been diverted to finance external wars and internal conflicts but many educational institutions have been ravaged as if they can be easily rebuilt and furnished at a low cost, effortlessly meeting the school calendar requirements next time.

To address the current entrance exam results, it is crucial to approach the situation with a focus on understanding and improvement rather than assigning blame. While the call for “Back to the Basics” may not necessarily reflect the historical call for quality in the US education system, it could serve as a significant factor down the line. For now, the focus is limited to addressing the outcomes of the entrance exam.

One potential strategy is to establish a national inquiry committee that can be decentralized to the school level.

This committee would be tasked with exploring the reasons behind the discrepancies in the teaching-learning and assessment process. The aim is to gather comprehensive information without the intention of naming and shaming individuals. Instead, the inquiry would serve as a learning process to uncover the underlying issues and find an enlightened approach to reverse the unintended educational outcomes reflected in the entrance exam results.

In addition to the national inquiry, it is important to conduct school-level teaching and learning inventories involving all stakeholders. Open and frank discussions should be organized with teachers, school principals, unit leaders, students, and parent committees, such as PTAs.

These discussions should delve into various aspects, including the actual student learning time during a day, week, and month. Understanding how school resources, particularly time, are utilized is crucial, as research emphasizes the significance of the time students spend inside and outside school campuses.

While the Ministry of Education has emphasized the quality of the tests and the administrative process, it may be necessary to review the table of specifications for content coverage, the level of difficulty, and the alignment with the operating curriculum. Many concerns have been raised by school principals, teachers, and students regarding the curricula and the timely availability of textbooks. Addressing these concerns and ensuring the technology-aided grading system is reliable can help build confidence and eliminate speculative conclusions made by different segments of society.

Lastly, there should be consideration given to the role of the entrance exam as a policy choice. This involves determining the proportion of students from the total pool who should transition to higher education and those who should be awarded certifications. There is also a need to address the question of whether all students need to move to the current terminal level, where there are no immediate answers than taking remedial courses. This issues requires political and policy alternatives, as the current “temporary solution” may not be feasible in the long run for practical or other reasons.

By implementing these measures, including the establishment of a national inquiry committee, conducting school-level inventories, reviewing the specifications of content coverage and difficulty, and reevaluating the role of the entrance exam, it is possible to gain deeper insights into the challenges and work towards finding sustainable solutions to improve the education system and reverse the current educational learning outcomes.

Contributed by Dereje Terefe

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