An economic solution to exam cheating

Sitting for exams is an annual ritual, a rite of passage for youngsters globally. It’s one of the rarely questioned traditions; it does not matter if the country is communist or democratic.

The only other thing that gets such wide acceptance is money or falling in love. Despite all the innovation from fire to mobile phones and planes, we have rarely innovated around exams, just like falling in love.

While the modality might have changed from paper to online, the basics remain the same. You are given an exam that demands you recall what you learnt or apply it in a new context. Education experts suggest exams test different things.

Remember Bloom’s taxonomy? Knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation.

But beyond the ritual of sitting for exams with enhanced security and frisking to avoid illegal material, including mobile phones, why do we sit for exams? Do we have an alternative? Any reasons why is cheating is commonplace? Any solution?

 Common curriculum

Exams are meant to ensure uniformity of thought among the citizens. By going through a common curriculum, we become Kenyans in our thoughts and perspectives.

That applies to other nations too. The uniformity is a risk to creativity despite its efficiencies. Interestingly, even private schools are never spared the uniformity of thought through a national curriculum.

The uniformity of thought includes our cultures, beliefs, and the body of knowledge and often stereotypes. The packaging of this curriculum can make a big difference.

Think of Kenyan students learning about an early man from Zinjanthropus to Cromagnon while children in the UK are learning that 1066 AD is when the UK was last invaded?

Does anyone tell our children that Britain lost in the Mau Mau war? Are we designing the next generation of lasers or talking about the rainbow and its colours? Are we learning about the periodic table or the synthesising the next cancer drug?

Exams perpetuate class society too. They confirm our genetic endowment in terms of memory or IQ. The exam results channel us into different professions and prestige thereof. We can’t forget that exams keep the youngsters busy. What would kids do if there were no exams?

We can’t forget there is a lot of money in exams. Who supplies the printing materials for the exams done yearly?

What of the thousands of books and revision kits? There are also lots of jobs as examiners and supervisors. The channelling of students to different professions and their prestige and money that comes with passing exams suck in State and individuals and their interests.

 Kenya’s affluent

The stakes are raised further by the monopoly enjoyed by KNEC. Our kids have no choice but sit for KNEC administered exams. You may have noted that Kenya’s affluent have choices from IGCE to IB.

The majority just wait for national exams with confidence or fear. Paradoxically, the brightest go to the best schools; should it not be the other way round? Maybe we are too religious; to those who have, more will be added. KNEC monopoly and the high returns in passing exams that mimic lottery create strong incentives to cheat.

That is basic economics, any profitable business attract counterfeits e.g jewellery. It also attracts new entrants. Monopolies breed corruption or inefficiencies that are reduced by new entrants. We keep complaining about the police or immigration because they are monopolies.

That is why arbitration and traditional jury are likely to improve our justice system by offering competition. We liberalised all sectors from health to farming and politics, with KANU finally losing power. We left the examination system a monopoly. That monopoly will remain an incentive to cheat, no matter how many police officers are deployed.

That monopoly could create a tight supply chain of collaborators in cheating. The solution to cheating is to liberalise exams. Make KNEC a regulator and let anyone or body offer credible exams at a reasonable fee.

The competition will kill cheating overnight and the police will focus on their core business. How come there are no police officers during university exams? How come we never hear of cheating in international exams such as IB, IGCE?

The examination is not a police issue, it’s an economic issue. Can we convert exams into a conveyor belt of intellectual freedom and optimism, not fear and trepidation? Why should we have guns in war zones and exam centres too?

-The writer teaches at the University of Nairobi

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