Clean KCSE results will run cartels out of business

Former Uasin Gishu High School student Otieno Onyango Kelvin is carried by his family members after receiving his KCSE results on 30/12/2016. He scored an A plain with 81 points. PHOTOS BY PETER OCHIENG/STANDARD

Something very commendable has happened in the education sector; the 2016 KCSE results are credible. After a decade of unreliable results, Education Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i, Kenya National Examinations Council (Knec) Chairman George Magoha and their team have proved that it is possible to do things right and get it right. In the past, we were treated to imitations of results.

Earlier in the year when the CS announced reforms in the way exams are conducted, we witnessed students’ unrest and burning of school facilities. Preliminary analysis show that of the 126 schools that experienced arson attacks by end of July, only about one in every 10 feature among schools with students who scored grade A or A-.

Those who doubted the cause of the riots including some of our political leaders, can now reliably confirm for themselves that it was mainly because of the stringent measures being put in place to curb cheating and leakages. They included holding school principals accountable, secured storage of examinations materials and centralised marking.

In the short term, these measures have produced desired outcome. This need to be sustained in the longer term so that we can recreate the moral fibre of our society and the right technical expertise to drive the economy.

But why do we need national assessments?

First, we need to know how well students are learning especially in regard to the national education goals, aims of the curriculum, preparation for further learning and for life. Using a C+ as the cut-off, only 15 per cent could demonstrate mastery of the subject content and could be ready for further learning though we should be cognizance of lifelong learning.

For university admissions, this group will be subjected to cluster points to determine degree programme placement. Unfortunately, these quantitative results cannot tell us about some of our national education goals, for instance good citizenship and values inculcated in a student.

While we know that the 15 per cent qualify for entry to universities, this complicates admissions in middle level colleges as well as quality of recruitment in other institutions like KMTC, teacher training colleges, the police, the army and TIVET institutions. These institutions train personnel that provide critical skills and/or services to the economy and if the universities were to absorb all those who scored C+ or above, then the quality of trainees and recruits at these institutions has a very high risk of being compromised.

Second, the examination should act as an assessment of students’ knowledge and skills. This is an important aspect for diagnosing learning competences and placement of students in the right career and/or academic tracks, identify students who need remedial teaching instead of the usual commercial tuition. But more importantly, shed light on the effectiveness of teaching. As it stands now, we know that students who scored grade E, and that was six in every 100, were struggling to progress within the system and they needed an intervention.

Another five in every 10 students who scored a grade D or D- could be described as hanging-on-there. They have a potential but it would appear that the school inputs and home environment were not successful in supporting them to acquire the required competences.

It should be noted here that what the students demonstrated is an accumulation of learning, right from their ECD and primary school where they acquire foundational knowledge and skills.

But it is too late to intervene now and this is why diagnostic assessment should be done much earlier. The big question is, who else has a higher chance of scoring a straight grade E. If known, intervention measures could be put in place in good time. Fortunately, the envisaged curriculum reforms provide alternative tracks to cater for students with various learning abilities.

According to data collected by the African Population and Health Research Center (APHRC), seven in every 10 primary school pupils are taught math by a teacher who can demonstrate mastery of math concepts at a level of 40 per cent or above. Meaning, the other three are disadvantaged as their teacher is challenged in numeracy. With a population of over 10 million primary school learners,  over 3 million pupils are taught math by “weak” teachers.

Third, assessments can help us understand inequalities of learning outcomes by subgroups such as sex, geographical region and social class. It would be of grave concern to the public and the Ministry of Education if, for example, the 6 per cent grade E and 45 per cent who are just hanging there, belong to certain geographical regions such as urban slums and areas with higher proportions of people living below the poverty line or social class or even sex. It would call for an immediate targeted quality of education intervention.

As more detailed results are received from KNEC, the inequality of learning outcomes as proxied by KCSE results will unfold. For instance we know that 57 per cent of those who score grade C+ or above and therefore eligible to join universities are girls. This is commendable given that for a long time girls have lagged behind on access to education opportunities, but if such an imbalance is left unaddressed for long or the gap widens, then there could be concerns.

Fourth, though more data may be required, the results could be used to interrogate what factors associate with student learning. APHRC research, also corroborated by other local and international studies, show that quality of teaching and learning materials, parental support, principals’ leadership style, student’s entry behaviour and a host of other contextual issues are among key determinants of learning. The 2016 KCPE results clearly indicate that some of these factors require close scrutiny if students are to acquire required competences. Furthermore, APHRC research also shows that low-performing students are more likely to engage in anti-social and aggressive behaviour such as drug and substance use, bullying and destructive activities in and outside school.

Other uses of the KCSE results could include whether the ministry’s standards are being met in the provision of education resources. For example, the student textbook ratio which in some schools is at 5:1 instead of the required 1:1, laboratory equipment, student teacher ratio, and teacher classroom ratio. The results, if credible, also tell us how student learning has changed over time.

For now it is hard to arrive at a conclusion on whether learning is improving simply by comparing the 2016 results with the sham results of yesteryears. However, if the 2017 examinations follow the same process, it will be possible to make a better comparison and a sound conclusion on progress in learning. It is also unfortunate that past KCSE results have been mainly used to screen who goes to the university, but with the rejuvenated leadership in the sector, better utilisation of the results in decision making is expected.

There are lesson learnt in the conduct of 2016 examinations. Two key ones include the multi-sectoral approach to conducting processes of national importance such as examinations. We witnessed CS Ministry of Internal security Joseph Nkaissery and his Police Service team, and the CS Communication Joe Mucheru joining their colleague in Education to make the process a success. Such efforts could be extended to other areas where assessments are conducted including the teacher training colleges, medical training colleges, TIVET institutions and universities where both anecdotal and administrative information show that cheating and exam leakages are equally rampant. The other key lesson is that it is possible to reform the education sector and especially working towards attaining national education standards.

Finally, the public is optimistic that the current leadership at the ministry is serious with reforms and are ready to run the sector in a professional manner. They will rely on Kenyans of good will to succeed and overcome the hurdles being erected by cartels who are in the business of selling counterfeit grades.

- Dr Ngware is a senior research scientist and leader of Education Research Programme, African Population and Health Research Centre. [email protected]; @mngware; Views expressed here are those of the author and not necessary shared by those mentioned.