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Forget KCSE results, evaluate and improve the education system

By Wachira Kigotho | January 7th 2017
Wachira Kigotho

After absorbing the shock waves of the impact of poor performance of schools and students in last year’s Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) exam, some interested parties are now demanding an intensive audit of the results.

The centrality of their thesis is that those results in educational terms lacked validity and in effect were not reliable, simply because their statistical distribution did not reflect a normal curve. In this regard, Akello Misori, the Kenya Union of Post Primary Education Teachers (Kuppet) Secretary-General, argues a normal curve would have shown a few top performers and a similar number at the bottom, with the majority of students in the middle.

In essence, what Misori and others are pointing out is that while 141 students obtained a mean score of straight A, then a similar number of candidates should have scored a mean grade of E. Unfortunately, while that is what one would expect in an ideal situation, few countries globally attain normal distribution curves in their national examinations.

In fact, there was nothing peculiar or abnormal in the positively skewed distribution of the KCSE exam results that depicted a majority of low scores and a few high scores. All what it meant is that most students performed poorly. This was in sharp contrast to other circumstances, where a negatively skewed distribution could have illustrated a majority of high scores on the one hand and a few low scores on the other.

But the belief that positively skewed or negatively skewed statistical curves of distribution of results of educational tests and examinations are indicators of lack of validity or reliability of such tests is not grounded in fact. According to Tom Kubiszyn, professor and director of training at University of Houston and an internationally recognised expert on testing and measurement, such curves are merely indicators of the location of the majority of the scores.

In essence, a credible distribution of results, either depicting a normal or a skewed curve, is a key pointer about knowledge, skills and behaviour which an examination purports to measure.

Subsequently, instead of calling for an audit of last year’s KCSE exam results, teachers’ unions, teachers, parents, students and other concerned persons should have used the skewed curves as a wake-up call for urging the government to start addressing myriad challenges within the secondary education sector.

No matter how much one would have liked to see a normal curve in the results, it is far more important to have asked oneself; how well were students learning? According to Dr Thomas Kellaghan, a former World Bank education consultant and a keen watcher of Kenya’s education system, it would also be necessary to evaluate characteristics of the learning environment.

Critical questions

However, few Kenyans are interested in asking some of those critical questions as most people are fixated on KCSE exam, merely as a selection tool to university education. Although the selling point of the 8-4-4 system of education was that it would have capacity to prepare and equip the youth with knowledge, skills and other expertise necessary to play an active role in society turned out to be a smokescreen, the real intention was to widen access to higher education.

But without referring to the merits and demerits of the 8-4-4 system over the jettisoned 7-4-2-3 system, the two education regimes have similar characteristics in terms of infrastructure and resource-based disparities among various categories of schools. The crux of the matter is that secondary school education in Kenya has always been stratified into a hierarchy of resources.

Currently, the secondary schools are in a four-tier system comprising national schools, extra-county, county and sub-county schools that include low cost private secondary schools. Similarly, in the old system, secondary schools were categorised as maintained schools, assisted schools, unaided harambee schools and unaided private schools.

By 1985, the maintained schools category were at the pinnacle of the hierarchy of secondary education and all of them had A-level classes for both science and art subjects, while selected schools from the assisted group were allowed to have A-level classes in arts subjects only.

“Neither the unaided harambee schools nor the unaided private schools were allowed to have A-level classes as they were deemed to be inferior and incapable of successfully teaching such courses,” said the late Prof George Eshiwani in a World Bank study on education in Kenya.

In such a highly selective segment of secondary education, it was possible to attain normal curves at the Kenya Advanced Certificate of Education examinations, while positive skewed curves of distribution were recorded at the Kenya Certificate of Education or the O-level exams.

But with the entry of KCSE as the only national examination at secondary education level, frequency of positively skewed curves increased, not just in the overall mean performance, but also in specific subjects, notably Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics. According to data-sets from the Strengthening of Mathematics and Science in Secondary Education (SMASSE) Project, mean grades of D-E in Mathematics account for over 75 per cent of the total KCSE candidature. “The situation is worse in Physics, as some students score between 01 and 10 out of 100 marks,” says SMASSE.

The degree of poorly performing students was driven a notch higher with the increase of sub-county secondary schools, as well as deteriorating standards of county schools. Commenting on the issue in a study titled “Participation and Performance in Education in Sub-Saharan Africa with Special Reference to Kenya”, Keith Lewin, a professor of International Education at the University of Sussex, says national and extra-county schools that are just a small fraction of the secondary education system will continue doing well in KCSE exams.

“Buttressed by a long history and with influential alumni to support them, these schools are highly selective in their intake and will continue sending most of their students to elite public universities,” says Lewin, who is a leading specialist on basic education in Sub-Saharan Africa.

According to him, national schools have almost two-thirds of their students obtaining a mean grade of B plus, while only about 10 per cent of students in extra-county schools attain bare university minimum entry points. But despite corruption in buying of grades, in the last few years, sub-county schools that are the largest category of secondary education in Kenya lagged far behind as only one student out of 200 in those schools qualified for university admission.

Subsequently, the situation might be far much worse this year, a worrying trend that calls for education stakeholders to forget fighting over educational statistical curves of distribution of results, but engage themselves on how to improve quality of those schools that most of their students are likely to be shut completely from accessing higher education.

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