Lead Us Not To The Test

On a Saturday afternoon, I find a friend’s nephew hard at work tackling fifty KCPE Kiswahili questions. This scene is repeated in a number of homes across the country. Most candidates are studying by doing tests. And often very many at a time. What do they and their parents think about this state of affairs?

A lot of things have been said about the 8-4-4 system and whether or not it prepares children adequately for the future. I was looking to find out if the children whose futures we discuss think the system is efficient.  I was also curious about their parents’ thoughts on the same. The picture that emerged was one of trepidation and hope.

My friend’s niece, an outspoken girl in Standard Seven speaks candidly of what she has witnessed in the knowledge that that was going to be her life in under a year

“When I think of KCPE, the first thing I think of is pressure from everyone.” This theme of pressure and one’s future being tied to that single exam was a recurring one from both parents and children.

“If I fail KCPE, it’s like my future is ruined.”

That was a dire pronouncement from a pre-teen but it was phrased in the same way by each person I spoke to. Parents could fathom a path to success for their children whatever their KCPE results but the notion that they’ll be doomed if they ‘fail’ is very alive in the minds of the children.

As 8-4-4 examinations go, children have never had it so easy. Until 2000, they had to sit seven papers. After reforms in that year, children in subsequent years only sit five. While this only represents a decrease of two papers, it was essentially the removal of four subjects: Art & Craft, Music, Home Science and Business Education. While the reforms anticipated a situation where these subjects would be taught but not tested, they quickly disappeared from timetables. The children I spoke to, all born in or after 2000, had never had a day of any of these subjects.

The parents I met said this all had to do with exam taking. “Children are zombies“ the boy’s mother says, “as long as you pass exams and get 400, everyone is fine.  No one cares whether the children can reason or think.”

Examinations in Kenya are a high stakes game.

When 11-13 year olds tell you that they will be doomed if they do not pass KCPE they do not speak in jest. Parents spoke about a system designed to weed out children at each turn. The goal of examinations wasn’t so much evaluation as to sort out the wheat from the chaff. Those adjudged not to be up to scratch are essentially spat out of the system. The rates of transition in Kenya tell a story of a country where very many children fall by the wayside. It is not uncommon to hear of high performers who missed out on their courses or schools of choice because they were impeded from top performance during KCPE or KCSE. A system that negates all the work done over the course of an 8 year period such as primary school and only takes into account the events of three days can hardly be described as fair.

The parents spoke about an ideal situation that allowed for continuous assessment so that a child at Standard Eight had a record spanning 8 years that would be taken into consideration when determining which school they would be assigned to. This would result in a more representative assignment as opposed to a situation where a final push would put a slacker at the top of the pile.

I found that the rates of exam taking are related to the size, cost, and public/private nature of the schools that children attended. Those from private schools spoke of a plethora of exams throughout the year – as six exams in a term. Those from public schools, especially in rural areas, generally did only three a term. One candidate from Khwisero/Kakamega told me that whether or not he and his classmates passed, his teachers were “resigned to their fate” in direct contrast to his privately educated peers whose parents spoke of a huge pressure to make the school attractive by having a successful lot of pupils.

“In their previous school, classes began at 6:00am and ended at 9:00pm and even after  that, they still had to do homework. So from class seven, the student had to become a boarder” said one mother. Lunch, which was about 30 minutes, was filled with rushing to finish lunch time assignments.

What this pressure results in is a situation that resembles drills. Children cycle severally through topics by doing exams. As time progresses, they become expert exam-takers who are also pretty efficient at gaming the system through cheating and other mechanisms. Since the goal is to get high grades and not so much to understand, the means of getting those grades need not be focused on.

“If you’re always doing exams, you don’t have time to study ahead. All you do is revise, you’re always going back” says the girl.

A focus on exams is a two-sided thing. While the children of Shanghai and Hong Kong are subject to the rote learning that is engendered by constant examinations, they score some of the highest marks in global evaluations of literacy and numeracy. On the other hand, several states in the US have shifted their focus to examinations yet the country continues to produce middling results at each turn. How then do we give our children relevant skills while testing them effectively? While the issues of relevance and the place of examinations was discussed at length, those are topics for another day.

While many things were put forth as the panacea to our national obsession with examinations, two stood out: Continuous assessment and the place of County governments.

Continuous assessment came up more than once when I spoke to parents. Changes affect children differently and that is especially true in a country like ours where life is always in flux. Children who were in Standard Seven in certain areas of the republic, for example, found themselves in IDP camps at around KCPE time the next year. Did the results they eventually received reflect their true capabilities? Probably not. This is just one situation where continuous assessment would have been invaluable. Of course that raises the issue of harmonised record keeping and the role of the state in ensuring that examinations are administered regularly and at a certain standard as children lead up to the national examination. While papers such as KCPE and KCSE would be weighted differently, it would be ideal for children’s results over the years to also be brought to bear.

The other possibility that emerged was examination reform (as part of a larger theme of education reform) at the county level. The parents I spoke to mentioned the focus on exams at a national level being replicated on a smaller scale at the county level. They posited that a county education system that enabled the exams taken by children across time ought to be brought to bear on the national system and would be of benefit to the children and their parents. Most felt that the status quo would have no space for reform and wondered what it would take to change this situation.

While I would not call the examination system broken, it says a lot about us and our focus on ephemera; be they examinations or elections. There is need for a review of examination policy on a national as well as county level. This may prove to be what we need to be able to craft policy that is gentler on both parents and their children. Maybe the future holds more than trepidation at the prospect of examinations.

6 Replies to “Lead Us Not To The Test”

  1. The sole point of examinations is to evaluate whether the student has understood the material. Often the pivot of failure in our current system is what happens after such an evaluation. For the student who fails at comprehension, the ready measure at hand is to castigate him or her and often in transitory exams such as KCPE and KCSE completely discard them out of the system. That I believe is where we need to start if we want any long lasting reform in education. School by any definition should educate each individual based on their talent and developmental needs. Exams in their necessity should evaluate each individual’s capacity in order to inform the trajectory that the teacher should take in developing the student. Our current social ineptness to deal with corruption, poverty and justice is really inherent from a system that taught us early on to do whatever it takes to survive no matter the cost or collateral involved because the alternative is DOOM!

    1. As you have rightly pointed out, our education system prepares well for the country we live in. It sounds like what we really need to reform is the country!
      “School by any definition should educate each individual based on their talent and developmental needs.” I agree…hopefully the change we need will happen soon.

  2. Education reform will take a lot more than structural changes, the bigger change ought to be in the mindset of Kenyans. I am a product of the 8-4-4 system and in order to make my point I will borrow from personal experience. My primary education was evenly split between Aga Khan primary Mombasa and Moi Avenue primary in Nairobi from where I sat my primary exams. Back in my day the top 5 were assured of places in National schools but with the increasing competition for places in the said schools, Moi avenue is no longer competitive and neither are most public schools in Nairobi. Why? The obsession with exams partly explains it.

    When I got to high school it became worse, though not as bad as it is now. Why? We are made to think that the only viable courses are Medicine, Law, Engineering, Architecture, etc.(Whenever the top students are interviewed after topping in their exams all of them will say they want to be surgeons) People used to qualify for such courses with strong B+, in those days a clean sweep of As was virtually unheard of. So what do we do? focus on exams, exams & more exams! Maranda high topped the exams 2 years ago. What was their formula? Clear the syllabus in the 1st term, start drilling the students with exams in the 2nd term and by the 3rd term have them setting exams for themselves. By the time they are facing the exams at the end of the year they are fine tuned exam tackling machines. With the increase in the number of As in Kenya have we seen a commensurate increase in quality professionals?

    1. Sir Ken Robinson speaks of a factory style approach to education. In Kenya, the factory churns out As a dime a dozen.
      Has Kenya seen an increase in quality professionals? That would require a conversation on quality to begin with.
      As you accurately pointed out, public schools are not doing well and the focus on exams puts children in those schools at a disadvantage. How do you think we can reverse this obsession with exams>

  3. I think that the Zimbabwe model is pretty good- primary school is a breeze, you sit 4 multiple choice exams, then you have to start sitting entrance exams for different high schools. Before their meltdown, Zim had a very high literacy rate, plus they still churn out a huge number of professionals- the dream of every intelligent kid in high school is to be an accountant, an actuarial accountant or a chartered accountant. Not to mention that half of the UK is staffed by nurses and doctors from Zim. But then again, maybe it’s less about the education system and more to do with the implementation…though I have to say that the Kenyan education system produces people who absolutely hate learning…and are interested in cramming for exams, knowledge be damned. (But I think Chinese students in this respect are even worse)

  4. Agriculture also disappeared with Art, Craft & Music, Homescience and Business Education. And so true it has become a leave-you behind and I don’t care what happens to you after system.

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