When Ronald Dore analysed the problem of the emerging education system in 1980, he found it to be suffering from what he called the Diploma Disease.
He reached this conclusion basing on the “excessive reliance on the selection process in formal educational institutions”, which is epitomised by performance in exams.
Dore’s idea comes to retired Makerere University professor, Edward Kakonge’s mind whenever he is consulted by a parent about which school offers their child the best chance to pass highly.
“Education is not just about passing exams,” Prof. Kakonge says, adding: “but the current system is almost entirely bent on only this. This phenomenon of everyone scoring Grade A is recent.”
He did not leave out the common accusation that some schools cheat for students to attain high grades.
Are high grades bad?
But Prof. Kakonge has no trouble with high school grades per se. In fact, he is very proud of his own exploits in the academic arena.
From Kidaya Primary School in rural Hoima where he started out in the 1940s, he joined Kings College Budo, where he was among the 12 students out of 64 who scored Grade I in J3 exams.
He also passed his senior exams in Grade I and afterwards chose to go to Nairobi to sit for the London A-levels instead of joining Makerere College, then an affiliate of the University of London.
The professor later secured admission to St. Andrews University in Scotland and stayed on in the United Kingdom, only returning to Uganda to start his 35-year biochemistry teaching career at Makerere University in 1970 after earning a PhD from the University of Newcastle.
His quarrel with what he calls the ever-rising exam grades today is that “many undeserving students pass highly.” And when “high flying” students get to work, he says, “many of them cannot cope”.
Whereas one would get to university on government sponsorship with grades D, E, E in A-level exams in the 1980s, for instance, these days one needs A, A, A to earn a government sponsorship at the university. And without difficulty, hundreds, probably even thousands, achieve this.
This then raises the question; have exams become easier over the years?
But this question lacks context, according to Prof. Abdu Kasozi, the former head of the National Council for Higher Education, the higher education regulator.
To him, the question cannot be whether exams have become easier, since it is not even clear that students now pass more than the case was in the past.
“What do you base on to say that students pass more these days than in the past?” Prof. Kasozi asks. “Have you computed the percentages over time? It could be that it is because many more children now go to school and there are more schools, creating the impression that today’s grades are higher than in the past.”
To the professor, it could be that for the many students who record excellent grades today, many fail while in the past fewer children went to school, although the failure rate could still have been lower than today’s.
An attempt to access examination results from the past, like in the 1960s, proved futile.
Prof. Kasozi’s argument points to an important aspect – the absence of a conclusive comparative study on exam results in Uganda across decades, which makes it hard to conclude on whether pass rates today are higher than they were in the past days.
But a partial study covering one decade in Teso Sub-region in eastern Uganda shows a tendency for performance in examinations to improve over time.
This is despite the fact that the region, together with the north, have registered relatively poorer examination performance at least in recent years compared to central and western Uganda.
The study, sponsored by the Uganda National Commission for Unesco in 2008, found that performance in Primary Leaving Examinations (PLE) in Teso improved over the decade from 1997 to 2007, with pupils passing in Division One increasing from 4.9 per cent to 8 per cent over the period.
Those in Division Two increased from 41 per cent to 65 per cent, while those failing dropped from 10 per cent to 2.5 per cent.
But a decade is probably too short to give a clear picture of what has been happening to examination performance over time. After all, the decade in question was during President Museveni’s regime and therefore the study does not tell us about what happened during the earlier years.
An analysis of the recent performance in PLE shows an almost stable pass rate, with variations probably explainable by prevailing conditions.
The national pass rate in PLE in 2005, for instance, was 84.8 per cent, rising to 88.2 per cent the following year and then falling to 80.7 per cent in 2008.
It rose again to reach 88 per cent in 2010 before dropping slightly to 86.4 percent, a decline the ministry of education attributed to difficult economic conditions during that year.
“Exams are harder”
But even in the absence of concrete figures on performance over time, it is beyond dispute that today’s students, at least the best performers, score higher grades than in the past.
Mr Paul Nyende, a psychology don at Makerere University, says students now get more first class degrees than before, which is also true at lower levels.
According to him, “examinations are pretty tough and tight, harder than in the past.”
He says students only pass better these days because people are now a lot more serious about education, having realised that it is the key to success.
The other factors Mr Nyende says have improved examination pass rates are access to better facilities like the Internet and text books and the privatisation in the education sector.
Taking the psychology course at Makerere University as an example, Mr Nyende says when he went to university, they used to do 15 papers and now students do a minimum of 36 to complete a course.
Even the examination calendar, he says, is less favourable to today’s students considering that in the past, students sat for exams at the end of the year, while today they are done every end of a semester.
Simpler exam format?
Mr Nyende says, however, that some things have had to change to accommodate the new realities.
While in the past classes used to be smaller and more manageable by teachers, today’s classes have higher numbers, which is affecting the way examinations are administered.
“Giving short, structured questions has become more realistic because teachers handling thousands can (then) handle the scripts better,” Mr Nyende says.
Where essays are involved, he adds, it is likely that the marking could become “impressionistic” given the high number of scripts to handle.
With examinations taking a shorter, structured, multiple choice approach, he says, “the practical element and the link to the outside world begins to die.”
He adds that much of what is taught today is theory, which “can be extremely hard”. But, he wonders, “Is the theory relevant to the outside world?”
On this, Prof. Kakonge says such an approach to exams does not cultivate students’ abilities to handle the outside world. He says it makes students dependent on teachers, failing to train them to search out answers for themselves. When the students are eventually challenged with real life situations, he says, they do not have the answers.
“UK examinations easier”
Elsewhere, in the UK, attempts have been made to measure whether exams have become easier over time. Last year, a review by the British exam regulator, Ofqual, found that A-level and GCSE exams had gotten easier in the past 10 years.
Ofqual compared question papers in Biology and Chemistry (GCSE) as well as Biology, Chemistry and Geography (A-level) between 2003 and 2008, and 2001 and 2010 respectively.
The papers from 2008 and 2010, the review found, were “far more likely to demand less from teenagers than those from 2001 and 2003 as they had more multiple-choice questions and fewer essay questions.” It also found that the range of topics examined was narrower than before.