The release of 2021 Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) examination results on April 23 sparked the usual celebratory media coverage showing photos of top candidates on the front page of newspapers and reporting how they accomplished their feats.
While top scorers and their teachers deserve the accolades, a wider discussion should be initiated about the hundreds of thousands of students who performed poorly. This discussion is highly pertinent since the 2021 KCSE results are indicative of a longer-term trend: there has been no significant improvement in learning outcomes over the last few years.
The Usawa Agenda first published a report titled: “Are Our Children Learning?” in 2010 and it concluded that two out of three class 2 children could not read a simple paragraph. Moreover, 20 per cent of six to 16-year-old children could not do abstract mathematics at the same difficulty level as they were able to do in real life mathematics.
The picture remains grim more than 10 years later despite the government, the donor community and parents investing significant resources into the education sector. The 7th Learning Assessment Report published by Usawa assessed “the ability of children to read and comprehend English and Kiswahili, as well as complete basic numeracy tasks, set at grade 3 level.” For English, only 40 per cent of students met the expectation of reading a grade 3 appropriate text, whereas 50 per cent of learners met the expectation of solving a grade 3 appropriate problem.
Given that learning gaps have already been revealed at the primary school level, one has to question the transition policy of 100 per cent for KCPE candidates moving on to Form One and progressing to Form Four. Sadly, students performing below their grade level are never identified and subsequently not helped to perform at their proper proficiency level. Without high quality teaching and appropriate interventions early on, learning gaps will inadvertently widen as students progress through the education system.
The recent KCSE results are thus systemic of wider deficiencies in the education system such as the prolonged transition to the Competency Based Curriculum (CBC), a focus on providing simple resources rather than complex resources, education budget allocations that do not reflect the number of students in respective counties, a poor implementation of EdTech solutions, et cetera.
At this rate, an increasing number of secondary school graduates will face difficulties competing for jobs demanding even a basic skill set and their development path through the higher education sector by acquiring a series of credentials will almost certainly be insurmountable. This begs the question of what future is in store for the almost 50 per cent of students who could not score beyond a 24 percentage mark in their KCSE exams.
There is some respite in the form of the CBC because students in upper primary school will be assessed annually through their grades and they will also take a national assessment in grade six. The combined scores will be used to place students into appropriate junior secondary schools. This system should enable parents to identify any scholastic weakness in their offsprings early on and they can subsequently work with classroom teachers to address learning deficiencies or seek assistance from private tutors.
The goal of parents during upper primary school should, therefore, be to ensure their children have a strong academic foundation that will prepare them to do well in junior secondary school since it will be increasingly difficult to close any pre-existing learning gaps.
During junior secondary school, parents and teachers will gradually obtain an inkling as to which academic path their children should embark on in senior secondary school. This will partly depend on a child’s preference, but also on indicators such as high order inference and argument skills. Based on a composite assessment, parents need to then set realistic expectations regarding their child’s journey after secondary school. Not every graduate needs to aspire to attend university because this track often does not lead to higher financial success through so-called white-collar jobs. Too many people currently fall victim to the promise that a degree path is the ticket to success. Instead, Technical Vocational Education and Training institutions need to be embraced as a pathway to challenging and rewarding jobs in traditional economic sectors. Conversely, government policies need to create a vibrant and expanding economic space, particularly for small and medium-sized enterprises, which absorb the majority of non-university educated people through formal employment.
There are many decision points that parents must navigate when they oversee their child’s education and the path to success is rarely linear. Nevertheless, parents need to impart their offsprings with a modicum of intellectual curiosity so they become lifelong learners who can navigate an increasingly complex and interconnected world.
Dr Rosa Ko and Noah Miller are co-founders of the Sochin Research Institute that operates The Ko Academy, an after-school learning institution