To end exam cheating, we must understand purpose of education

Kakamega Hill School Class Eight candidates during their KCPE Mathematics paper on March 7, 2022. [Benjamin Sakwa, Standard]

Columnist Antoney Luvinzu attributed cheating in national examinations to what he considered a traditional assessment model. In an article last week, Luvinzu argued that examination cheating can be ended when the country adopts what he called authentic assessment model. In simplified terms, the traditional assessment model measures students’ knowledge of the content. Authentic assessment, on the other hand, is said to measure students’ ability to apply knowledge of the content in simulated or real-life situations.

Mr Luvinzu has simplified the problem of examination cheating. The kind of cheating the government has been battling goes beyond the nature of assessment we see in Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) and Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) exams and has little to do with the so-called traditional assessment model. One aspect of examination cheating is prior access to the papers by unauthorised people who seek to assist candidates. Prior access to examinations before the stipulated time is facilitated by adults, who do not care what model of assessment it is. 

The adults who abet cheating—for whatever reason and motivation—will still cheat under the so-called an authentic assessment model. 

Adults without moral probity will compromise the administration of examinations notwithstanding the nature of assessment. Dishonest teachers, heads of schools and other people who have lost sight of the trust the society has vested in them will do anything. They clearly don’t appreciate the ultimate purpose of education, neither do they appreciate the purpose of examinations. They would not mess up the administration of examination by aiding students to cheat if they did.

Even when the students attempt to cheat out of their own accord—without the assistance of teachers, school heads or parents—it does not follow that they are doing it because the assessment is not authentic. There is a much deeper problem at play here, especially when so many students in a school sneak unauthorised material into the examination room with the aim of cheating. It points to the failure in character formation of the students and something more sinister.

“Whenever students cheat in exam halls it may be partly due to the fact that teachers have failed to provide them with adequate knowledge and skills to pass their exams. In this case cheating in the exam halls could be seen as a desperate cry by the students for help, for greater attention and for quality tuition from their teachers,” Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Navrongo-Bolgatanga, Ghana, Alfred Agyenta, argued in a keynote speech at an education conference whose them was, 'How we can protect the integrity of examinations'.

Bishop Agyenta spoke in 2015 in the context of examination cheating under the West African Examinations Council (WAEC). WAEC is an examination board established by law to determine the examinations required in the public interest in the English-speaking West African countries. The bishop does not blame the model of the examinations in this and in the entire body of the speech, which is needless to reproduce here.

Suffice it to say that whatever the model of assessment, it is part and parcel of something bigger, something profound. It is about a country’s education policy, curricular and standards—the real meat of a country’s education. Whatever the model, assessment comes at the end of a continuum.

Appreciation and single-minded adherence to these three—education policy, curricular and standards—make adults do what they ought to do: to inculcate appropriate knowledge, skills, attitudes and values to the next generation and assess them without equivocation. Examinations come as icing on the cake. It is not the cake itself. Examinations evaluate how well students have learned and how well they can apply the knowledge gained to hypothetical and real-life situations or problems now and in the future.

The general education systems the world over imparts to its children are aimed at nurturing them to be dependable human beings and acquire the knowledge and skills they need to cope with the changes in life. “What matters most is that we have schools where students learn to think about the consequences of their actions, where they learn to treat other people with respect, where they learn how to live and work in a world of rapid change, and where they gain the knowledge and skills they need,” Dianne Ravitch, research professor of education at New York University, argues.

This is the purpose of schooling. Assessment comes in to evaluate how well school systems are discharging this duty. The distinction between traditional and authentic assessment models is an academic one. It is for professors of education and their students. Our education system seeks to develop all range of powers children have—from simple to sophisticated skills. It follows that the examinations students sit at the end of an education cycle test all the range of skills. Not just one or two.

The KCSE examination is not just recitation or recall of facts. The examination questions are not solely about memorisation, recollection and understanding. The questions also require students to demonstrate command of high order thinking skills. They seek to test students’ ability to solve problems, to analyse issues. In short, they call upon candidates applying the knowledge learned to deal with hypothetical problems or real-life situations.

To end examination cheating, we go to the ultimate purpose of schooling: creating opportunities for children to learn. And learn all that their innate powers are capable of learning