Obsession with exam markers is misplaced

Some Kenya Certificate Secondary Education (KCSE) candidates at Ngara Girls' High School, Nairobi in an exam room. [David Njaaga, Standard]
There is no failure. Only feedback- Robert Allen

Some principals often tell parents and other stakeholders during secondary school functions that their school is privileged to have some members of staff who mark national examinations.

Ostensibly, this is  meant to assure parents and guardians of KCSE candidates that the school has a cadre of professionals with the ability to teach their children the skills to tackle the national examinations.

This assurance is odd for several reasons. The most important concern parents, guardians and other stakeholders have is whether the children have had or are having quality instruction. That is their main interest.

Instructional quality takes care of the demands of the national examinations. However, parents and policymakers’ major interest is whether the children they have placed in the hands of school authorities are getting the best possible education. Examinations are an adjunct to education and not the raison d’être of schooling.

The purpose of schooling is learning. Learning is grounded on teaching, on the quality of instruction the learner’s receive. A mile or so to the day of the examinations, the concern of parents is that the curriculum the children have been exposed to has given them not just knowledge or content, but has equipped them with literacy skills, expressive skills, problem solving skills, analytical thinking and the dexterity to apply the knowledge and skills to any situation; in an examination setting or in any situation outside the classroom.

Pedagogical work

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For KCPE and KCSE candidates, the national examinations are meant to assess how well children learned against some standard or benchmark. School principals should—if they must—celebrate teachers who have evinced quality instruction to a level where students demonstrate in word and deed that they have had quality instruction and are, for practical purposes, ready for any test or examination.

The problem with celebrating examiners is that schools indirectly downplay the awesome pedagogical work done in the classrooms by teachers who are not examiners.

Some principals who don’t have Knec contracted examiners on their staff do invite examiners from other schools to coach or talk to their candidates on examinations-taking skills. The examiners are too glad to respond to the invitations as they are paid for the services.

The practice is counterproductive. It undermines the confidence students have in the teachers who teach the subjects. The students don’t need test-taking skills if they have quality instruction in that subject. So the coaching is redundant. Besides, no amount of examinations-taking skills can substitute the quality of teaching and learning that should have taken place prior to skills in examination tackling or to the actual examinations.

In principle, quality teaching is the best preparation for an examination—whether the examinations are high stake or low stake. Assessment expert W James Popham helps to clarify the difference. He defines two kinds of assessment-aware instruction: Curriculum teaching and item-teaching.

Popham, a professor emeritus at University of California Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, observes that curriculum teachers focus on the full body of knowledge and skills represented by test questions even though tests can employ only a sample of questions to assess students’ knowledge about a topic.

Curriculum implementation

On the other hand, he argues, item teachers narrow their instruction, organising their teaching around clones of the particular questions most likely to be found on the test — and thus teach only the bits of knowledge students are most likely to encounter on exams.

School principals could serve the best interests of the students and the entire education sector if they celebrated—not the examiner—but teachers who are focused on the curriculum. They should in fact actively encourage a formidable learning and thinking philosophy among the teachers and students.

The thrust of this article is four-fold. First, we should celebrate teachers who are giving quality instruction to our children. They will deepen and broaden their instructional practices if so celebrated.

Second, we should avoid idolising examiners on our staff in their distinct capacity as examiners. We should celebrate them more as teachers, particularly if they use their experience as examiners to help the school correct the flaws or gaps that examination results of the students reveal about the curriculum implementation.

Third, we should vigorously fight against drilling students for the purposes of examinations.  Teaching to test—which is what item teaching amounts to—denies children the opportunity to learn what they should be learning as prescribed by the curriculum.

Fourth, the practice of examiners visiting schools to teach examinations-taking or tackling skills has little or no educational value apart from being outlawed by Knec. 

Fifth, concern with testing misdirects the energies of the school community and distorts the very purpose of examinations, which is to assess learning and knowledge the prescribed curriculum embodies.  

National Examinations come in the 8th year for primary and in the 4th year of secondary education. Eight years and four years give a principal who understands the ultimate purpose of schooling in the education of children time to organise the school to focus on quality teaching and learning.

Mr Buhere is Communications Officer, Ministry of Education

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Exams markersKCSE candidatesSchool Principals