In the first of a three-part essay, Charles Makanga Sendegeya argues that good exam grades do not always reflect learning and a good education.
School improvement effort in education systems of many countries has for long been founded on performance indicators obtained by comparing national school-leaving examination results between schools or of a school over a number of years.
This is usually complemented by judgments of school inspectors on activities in the classroom, school management and the school climate.
On the whole, term activity cards and school-leaving examination transcripts are the primary means of measuring a student’s progress.
School performance or ranking is then determined using comparative analysis of configurations of first grade passes and so on that students in two or more consecutive years have attained.
But what do these grades mean? What should the grades mean? Do excellent grades guarantee any value for students beyond league table triumphs for their schools?
Are national examination results a reliable measure of educational attainment or achievement? What makes school improvement strategy informed by high-stakes national school-leaving examination results problematic?
There is already concern about post-secondary enrolment and completion rates in Uganda.
Employers have also been heard decrying the usefulness of university graduates and have called for the linking of what is taught in class to workplace expectations. The way newspapers are often flooded with photos of examination stars is a sign that national examination results are a primary inspiration and often used to make judgments about school improvement.
Although national promotional examinations present short-term benefit for accountability and aggregation, the school improvement practice they influence at best increases rote-learning of aspects of subjects that can be examined in a pen-and-paper test.
Improvement viewed through a high-stakes testing lens brings teachers to see their pupils not as persons, but as producers of grades that will keep their ‘teaching’ record in a good light.
Despite their various shortcomings, school leaving examinations provide a useful source of extrinsic motivation that sees many students through school and to success in life.
First, it is instructive to examine the nature of high-stakes national examinations, arguments advanced in their favour and the rationale for use of examination results to inform school improvement strategy.
Standardised testing has been shown to provide a systematic procedure for describing performance whether in terms of numbers or categories.
Secondly, it avails specified procedures for administration and scoring. Standardized examinations also have an established format and set of materials.
They present the same tasks and require the same response modes from all test takers.
Finally, they provide tables of norms to which the scores of candidates can be compared in order to ascertain their relative standing.
Several arguments have been advanced in favour of high-stakes tests. These include the need to hold teachers accountable to their employers, motivate them to teach better, particularly to push the laziest ones to work harder.
High-stakes examinations have been associated with students’ desire to work harder and learn more and that scoring well can lead to feelings of success. Individually administered examinations can serve important purposes when they are selected wisely and used as intended by their developers, and their results are not over-generalized or misinterpreted.
I will now examine four main propositions emerging from the above reflection on the usefulness of national high-stakes national examinations. These relate to their accountability function, contribution to learning and knowledge-construction ability, assessment task validity, curriculum and teacher integrity and its relation to student needs as focus of education policy.
The notion behind examination-based accountability is that it will provide students, teachers and administrators an incentive to work harder (or at least in a formal way) as well as help identify struggling students and schools.
Advocates claim that accountability improves student performance by raising motivation, increasing parent involvement and improve curriculum and pedagogy.
Parents who make tax contributions and later entrust their children to schools have a legitimate right to expect reasonable returns on their investment. They do hold schools to account because their children would not be able to live their youth again when their school years are laid to waste through school experiences that do not improve their lives.
However, high-stakes national examinations introduce undue constraint in the way teachers teach just to be able to produce acceptable performance statistics. These statistics often do not reflect equity, desired levels of student learning, critical thinking and better attitudes to learning. Economic theory also suggests that high-powered incentives may lead to unwanted distortions.
Based on similar logic, critics have argued that such policies will cause teachers to shift resources away from students in difficult circumstances and ignore critical aspects of learning that are not explicitly examined. The performance statistics that schools present for accountability to parents and the government may also be faulted when they are examined for improvements in learning.
In part two on Monday, I will examine how much learning is associated with high stakes examinations and also the impact of such a system on curriculum and teacher integrity.
The author is an independent School Improvement Advisor at Ethics First Management Systems Ltd.