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How exams cartels colluded over the years to cash in on high grades

By Wachira Kigotho | January 1st 2017 at 09:20:19 GMT +0300

Waweru James Nguyo, who is among this year's KCSE performers in Kirinyaga County is carried shoulder high by fellow orphans at the Little Angels Center for Orphans and Vulnerable Children in Mwea West Sub-County on 30/12/2016.He posted an A- of 77 points at Kianyaga Boys High School where he has been studying. [PHOTO/MUNENE KAMAU/STANDARD]

The good news that came from Shimo la Tewa High School when this year’s Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) results were released on Thursday is that Education Cabinet Secretary Dr Fred Matiang’i has successfully managed to block cartels that had degraded the reputation and credibility of the country’s education examination system.

But the bad news is that the architects and ring leaders who had planned, connived and captured the education sector’s testing and measurement network for their benefit are still free. Worse still, the sad story is that for about two decades, greed, opportunism and bad manners had established a road map for mediocre students to unfairly have a go at higher education, too often at the expense of the hard-working ones and to the detriment of academic standards.

Surely, how did Kenya get here?

It all started in 1985 when the government introduced the current 8-4-4 system of education. The structure provided eight years of primary education, four years of secondary education and a minimum of four years of university education.

Effectively, the 8-4-4 curriculum replaced the 7-4-2-3 system of education that was deemed to have cobwebs of colonial education and described as too theoretical and elitist in nature. Spearheading the establishment of the new system, former President Daniel arap Moi faulted the old education system for not responding to the needs of Kenyans.

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Practical skills

“The old system that we want to replace is narrow and leads to early specialisation,” Moi said about the 7-4-2-3 system that had been in place since 1964.

According to Ahmed Yussufu, the former secretary of the Kenya National Examinations Council (Knec) and a key architect of the 8-4-4 system of education’s examination, grading and certification, the new system was planned to provide, at each level, basic scientific and practical skills that could be utilised for self-employment, salaried employment and further training and education.

In this regard, the stress on the 8-4-4 was on self-employment and job-creation for the youth. To fulfill those primary objectives, all students at KCSE were required to sit for 10 subjects of which English, Kiswahili, History and Government, Geography, Mathematics, Biology, Chemistry and Physics were compulsory.

There was only slight difference for students from low-cost private schools and district public schools — that prepared students for Biological Sciences and Physical Sciences instead of pure sciences. Apart from selecting two optional subjects, this category of students had to choose three subjects.

Robust government machinery led by the Executive worked around the clock to ensure safe delivery of the 8-4-4 baby to the public. Targets were set and the mean grade of B-minus was laid as the minimum entry to the university education.

But when the results for the 1989 KCSE results were announced, there were only 4,486 students who obtained mean grades A to B- (minus) out of a candidature of 131,803 students. With some embarrassment, Benjamin Kipkulei, the former Education PS, said a mean grade of C+ (plus) was a good cut-off for entry to university education.

Taking into account that admission to public universities was pegged at 10,000 students a year, the government conveniently filled the shortfall with 6,569 students who had obtained C plus.

In that year, only one student from Alliance High School had obtained a mean grade of A. According to statistics gleaned from the Knec database by the Kenya Secondary Schools Network, 86 students in that year had obtained a mean grade of A- (minus) and 54 of them were from the original 18 national schools. The rest were from the former provincial schools.

Parallel degree programmes

In 1990, the results were almost similar to those of the previous year. No student obtained a mean grade of A, while the number of A- (minus) shot down to 53, of which 35 were from national schools. Starehe had eight as followed by Alliance Boys with seven.

Although performance seemed to have improved from 1994 with reforms in the KCSE, especially in reduction of compulsory subjects from 10 to seven, inflation of good grades, especially of A, A- (minus) and B+ (plus) multiplied with the realisation that 8-4-4 was not unique but had characteristics of many education systems globally.

A senior education official at the Teachers Service Commission (TSC) reveals that cartels seeking to improve students’ grades in KCSE started coalescing in 2000, immediately after expansion of university education through parallel degree programmes took off in earnest.

“Some of those groups also took advantage of the free primary education, especially at the time when the (former President Mwai) Kibaki-led National Rainbow Coalition government was implementing expansion of education across the board,” says the source.

The official says most of those cartels were embedded in Knec and the Ministry of Education and had tentacles in secondary schools. Some parents were also involved and were keen to pay high tuition fees, part of which found its way to Knec officials who leaked examinations several months before the examination period.

“In this way, some schools were able to have their students go through those examinations in pretext of revising with past papers, without their knowledge that they were practising with the actual examination questions,” said the sources.

However, close scrutiny of the KCSE data sets over the years indicate that by 2005, cheating had become rampant. During this period the number of candidates obtaining mean grade of A every year had risen to more than 1,000, while those attaining mean grade of A- (minus) has also exponentially increased to more than 5,500.

The increase of grades across the entire KCSE system is also attributed to moderation of the examinations after markers have finished their work. The moderation that was being done at the Knec headquarters favoured some schools, especially those who paid for grades.

The problem of rampant cheating and paying for good grades continued to rise from 2013, and by last year, some schools had started placing most of their students into higher grades bracket, making nonsense of educational testing and measurement normal curves.

Undoubtedly, this trend of events endeared cheating head teachers to parents and politicians. In most instances, such school administrators were feted as selfless hard-working public servants who had the interests of their students at heart. Instead of being demoted or sacked altogether, such crooks were often promoted for perceived improvement of academic standards.

Grades for cash

According to the TSC official, some head teachers and members of school boards used KCSE performance as a tool to increase tuition fee and to flout official fees structures from the government.

Subsequently, a plethora of A grades in high cost-cost secondary schools had become a cash cow and a magnet to attract rich families to enroll their children in such institutions.

By dismantling the cheating web of cartels, Matiang’i has not just closed the money taps — he has almost turned back the clock in 1989, when the KCSE was launched.

The zeal and tenacity in which Matiang’i has taken to restore credibility in Kenya’s educational examination system is almost similar to the hard work that was accomplished by Prof Simeon Ominde in shaping the country’s education system after independence.

Although future commissions were established, the Kenya Education Commission, popularly known as the Ominde Commission that was established in 1964 and completed its work the following year, continues to be the basis in which modern education in Kenya is grounded.

But the main worry is whether the government and the country in general are likely to build on the credibility that Matiang’i has accomplished under many challenges. The crux of the matter is whether the government will allow the lords of impunity which include examination chiefs, government officials, teachers, parents and even students, to regroup.

For now, there are few people in Kenya who would fail to link this year’s craze of burning of schools by students with the attempt by the Ministry of Education to block cheating in KCSE.

According to Moses Oketch, a professor of Education Leadership and Assessment at the Institute of Education at University College London, a system of education could be utterly useless unless it provides quality education.

In this case, Kenya’s deteriorating quality of tertiary education, quite offering useless degrees, seems to have created intense competition and given rise to ‘eduprenuers’ who promise to deliver good grades to access degrees that are in high demand.

The writer is an education analyst. [email protected]


Fred Matiang’i KCSE cartels
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