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Progressive assessments better for Kenya than national exam

By Makau Mutua | August 21st 2016 at 00:00:00 GMT +0300

Prof. Makau Mutua

I know that every Makau, Otieno and Hassan has a reason why high school kids have been torching dorms. But you know what they say about opinions — everyone has one. In other words, there’s no shortage of theories. However, one reason that has received little attention is the fact of mandatory national exams as a ticket to the next stage. I know cartels of cheaters have been blamed for the infernos. But not the exams themselves. I want to suggest that national exams — KCPE and KCSE — are an illusory measure of academic merit and excellence. In fact, those exams are a blight upon the land and the national psyche, and should be abolished — like yesterday.

I recently wrote in my day — the 1970s and 1980s — it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a student to go to a university in Kenya. In my primary school, only two of us made it to college — the rest were condemned. That’s because the system was designed to guillotine all but what could be called the Talented Tenth. In reality, I think over 50 per cent were either university material, or fit to enter technical institutions of higher learning. But the system wasn’t designed to free Kenyans from ignorance and illiteracy. No — its purpose was to create a snooty overbearing elite to serve the colonial and post-colonial states.

The rest of the country was supposed to genuflect before this obsequious elite that was a dumb copy of the European. It was a full package — the English language, European and Christian names, the boiler hat and the monkey suits. Ironically, it’s the scions of this elite that still rule Kenya today. The colonial project was more successful than we know. If you doubt me, find out how many Kenyans go by a first African name. That in itself is very telling of the deep penetration of the European psyche into the African mind. It’s a pity that at least on this score Africans didn’t counter-penetrate the European. But my point is simple — the stratified, execution-style education system served to create an oppressive class structure. The national exams were the cornerstone of this evil scheme.

Our post-independence leaders lacked imagination on the school system. They swallowed line, hook, and sinker the colonial education raison d’etre. And they royally messed things up when they finally roused their brains to impose on the country the ill-advised 8-4-4 system. They retained the central facet of the old system — the machetes of the KCPE and KCSE as the rites of passage. That’s why every year we have a national orgy of the best student, the best school, and whatnot. It’s all a bunch of hooey. How can one be the best student just because they aced a national exam? That’s not how you measure academic excellence — through one exam no matter how well thought it is. The exam reduces education to an event, not a process.

My own belief is that the “exams race” — by students and parents — sits at the core of many problems. I think the stress of it all — the cheating, the scrounging for money to pay the cartels for the exams, and the pressure to do well after cheating are at the heart of the dorm burnings. The problem now is that Education CS Fred Matiang’i has sealed the cheating loopholes. The response has been a collective gagging and gasping for air by students, parents, and the cheating cartels. They have lashed out by burning buildings. They feel that they are being denied their “birthright.” They say corruption fights back. This time it is doing so by torching schools. Posturing by politicians isn’t the answer. We need to be thoughtful.

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My proposal is simple — abolish the goddam exams. Very few developed countries rely on one national exam to decide who advances to college and who doesn’t. Most democratic states don’t treat education as a winner-take-all sweepstakes where so-called “dumb” kids are consigned to the back of the line. Instead, students are graded on year-by-year basis to be advanced to the next year. This is done through cumulative grading of class work and homework throughout the week every semester. It’s that cumulative grade at the end of the year — not one final exam at the end of eight or four years — that determines whether one advances or not. Predictably, most kids are able to learn the material and pass. This is how you educate the whole country — not just the most gifted. Many kids aren’t good exam takers although they are good students. Subjecting them to a single “mother of all exams” doesn’t test their ability, but whether they can withstand pressure. Let’s do away with national exams.

kenya certificate of primary education (kcpe) kcse exams dormitory fire
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