Why media hype of exam results is a danger to education

The managing editor of Nation Media Group-Uganda, Mr Tabu Butagira

What you need to know:

  • The publicity blitz is not adding value to the process of assessment, the results themselves do not reflect the holistic abilities of learners, many of which remain largely untested at primary and secondary school completion, and singular focus on grades is itself unintelligent, writes Tabu Butagira.

This is an introspective piece and, as an insider, a self-critique of the media’s hyped coverage of national examinations’ results and the implications on debasing education in the country. 

Being a managing editor at the Nation Media Group-Uganda (NMG-U) and before that a reporter for more than a decade, I have inherently been a participant in the problem articulated. 

In that context, one could rightly argue that my hands are not ‘clean’, or as clean as that of industry outsiders, in this discourse. Why? Because I have reported on, planned, and or edited such impugned articles. 

Fortunately or unfortunately, that’s been the rite of reporting passage for most Ugandan journalists, which essentially sharpens a double-edged sword. 

This process-output involvement on the one hand makes media practitioners accepting and less critical, if at all, of the tradition of saturated bombardment of readers, viewers and listeners with news of ill-defined ‘successes’ and ‘failures’ in national exams. 

Thus, it blinds engagement with the substantive six-point purpose of education as illuminated in the Benjamin Bloom Taxonomy, which I return to later in this article. 

I will hazard why the reportage on national examinations’ results is much less journalism but more what award-winning British journalist Nick Davies aptly christens as “churnalism” in his 2008 book titled, Flat Earth News.   

The other grind of the sword is that participating in ‘midwifing’ the problem affords rare knowledge of inner media workings and failings, intended or inadvertent, regarding the exam result hyperbole. Mine, therefore, is not a lateral conjecture. Rather, it is a pragmatic commentary.

So, why am I inserting myself in the debate in this manner, and why now? 

Firstly, I am on my annual leave, making me a consumer rather than a producer of media content. That includes the 2023 Primary Leaving Examinations (PLE) results that the Uganda National Examinations Board (Uneb) released on January 25. 

The observation space made possible by disengagement from the process tickled my curiosity to question what we do inside. 

This scrutiny of the wider implications of our reductionist approach to examination outcomes and the associated publicity blitz sketch a portrait of the media’s sin in co-authoring the adulteration of education in Uganda. 

Secondly, and related to issue one, these lapses are often unexamined, or less examined, in the echo chamber of media practitioners. And outsiders have less power, or knowledge and interest, to engineer this debate among the journalism fraternity. The end result is an annual ritual of news hyperbole limited to a fraction of one of the three main domains of understanding and evaluating education activities/outcomes - cognitive, affective and psychomotor - that Bloom’s committee enunciated in 1956.  Such is the scale of us sleepwalking to a national crisis. 

Thirdly, there have been distressing anecdotes, some reported in past years, of the emotional meltdown and in some cases physical self-damage that the pressure of (under)performance in national examinations inflicts on ex-candidates. Some have committed suicide! Following the latest PLE results, an ex-candidate in Wakiso District reportedly wrapped himself in beddings doused with petrol and set himself alight. Reason? He didn’t get the grades he expected, according to some sources. However, the boy’s father refuted the claim, saying his son could have been triggered by something other than the exam results.

Uganda National Examinations Board (Uneb) Executive Director Dan Odongo delivers his remarks during the release of 2023 PLE exams at State House Nakasero on January 25, 2024. PHOTO/FRANK BAGUMA 

Fourthly, glutted coverage of PLE, O-level and A-level exams’ results has heightened commercial imperatives across the chain, with media houses the voluntary losers. I say theirs is self-inflicted because they have failed to see, or refused to tap into, financing opportunities profiting other stakeholders. Instead, they are losing money through problematic spending choices in reporting on the results. Yet, Uneb is earning and schools, promoted by the media uncritically as the best, line their pockets with the highest tuition and functional fees charges.

For instance, the major media houses in the country pay anywhere between Shs5m to Shs7m to buy a set of examination results from Uneb. This adds to Shs15m to Shs21m in a year for the three results of PLE, O-level and A-level. Request for specific analysis of the results bumps up the price.

Additionally, investments in locating ‘star’ performers across the country, assembling more hands on the deck to get content out faster and dedicated phone credit, feeding and other expenses on assigned journalists gross Shs1m or more a day every result cycle. Up-paging newspapers to create more than traditional space means added print run/costs. 

In return, individual print media houses may sell 2,000 or so extra copies, which at the cover price of Shs2,000, adds to Shs4m in new revenue. This is less than what they pay to Uneb for a result set. Yet, circulating newspapers nationwide is incurring transportation costs, meaning the excessive knee-jerk spend to cover national exams results makes little to no business sense.

The media houses are already not in the best of financial health; so, they don’t have, and should not, throw money around. If they are not making money, at least they should not be losing good cash or sleep over publicising the results for free.

As they lose money, other stakeholders are cashing in. This is how. Besides what Uneb receives from media houses, it likely shares with telecoms revenue from results’ accessed online, or charges telecoms upfront for that. Let’s do some basic math. Telecoms charge Shs500 per short text message (SMS) sent to obtain a candidate’s result. Uneb records show 736,931 pupils took PLE last year. If one SMS was sent to check each of their results, that is Shs368.5m in the bag in one day. The collection could be less, but likely more.

Inmates celebrate their good performance in the Primary Leaving Examination (PLE) at Luzira Upper Prison on January 25, 2024. PHOTO/FRANK BAGUMA. 

Generally, more than one person checks results of a candidate by SMS. It could be the candidate, their parents/guardians, or other relatives. Even schools. Sometimes, for reasons of network or other technical glitches, a requester sends multiple short text messages before getting the results. In short, more money for telecoms and Uneb.

Except for one-off adverts by a handful of schools on few media outlets, if at all, the media enterprises hardly recover spent resources as they officially cover the results for free, the unproven claims that some individual practitioners irregularly receive inducements to feature some candidates notwithstanding. The media’s voluntary assumption of loss in this kind of news operation is suicidal. 

What then does the news consumer, with no child in the game or other vested interest, get in return in mainstream media? Year-on-year rolls of images on television showing peers, relatives or school administrators cheering and yodeling while holding ‘star’ performer(s) aloft. Or, as in print, a thick edition pasted with mugshots or full pictures of smiling students and parents/guardians, all posed for the camera, and a listing of best students, schools and districts. In a way, the news editions are like album packaging. Then there are stories under titles such as “God helped me”, “I was inspired by my parents”, and “I want to be a doctor” et cetera. 

Uganda’s motto is ‘For God and My Country’ and nearly nine in every 10 citizens profess a faith. Thus, it is not that journalists expected Satan to aid success of candidates in ways that proclaimed God’s hand in the feat would meet the figurative ‘man bites a dog’ story testing. Or, that parents would not inspire their children? This is indicative of the uncritical reportage on examination results that I earlier in this article characterised as churnalism, a mundane warehousing of news content that Nick Davies elaborates on and loathes in his book, Flat Earth News.

Of course, there can be attention-arresting stories in the fog such as of the boy who obtained aggregate 4 and, working by the mother’s side to sell charcoal, voiced uncertainty about progressing with education due to lack of school fees. The publicity has interested some Good Samaritans prospecting to render support. In addition, data-derived content, as in past years, sharpens focus on gender, regional and subject inequalities. These are few and far in between. 

In the weeks running up to the release of PLE results, the Africa Centre for Media Excellence (ACME) published its offering on how media houses could cover the subject differently. Perhaps better. The not-for-profit media development organisation exhorted producers, editors and reporters to look beyond numbers, avoid oversimplification, humanise narratives, and provide insightful analyses. Its 10-point package of ideas published on January 8, 2024, and intended to aid content planning for newsrooms, among others, cites parental engagement and informed choices, learning outcomes and employment needs, implementation of continuous assessment and inclusive assessment programmes. 

Whereas ACME’s propositions appear good intentioned to improve the quality of prior thinking into the reporting on national exams, this article departs to question the whole logic and necessity of the excessive coverage. It is not to argue that celebrating success, whichever way it is constructed or construed, is bad. No. Rather, the publicity blitz is not adding value to the process of assessment, the results themselves do not reflect the holistic abilities of learners, many of which remain largely untested at primary and secondary school completion, and singular focus on grades as determinant of intelligence is itself unintelligent and counter-productive as illuminated below. 

The fifth reason why I have elected to canvass these issues publicly, and now, is because of the currency as it is once again the season for release of results of national examinations. 

UNEB board chairperson Celestino Obua.

Uneb itself abandoned publicising particulars of the country’s best students and schools on the premise, among others, that the practice encouraged examination malpractice. It could similarly be argued that featuring ‘stars’ in news drives cheating because it places candidates, families and school administrators under immense pressure to facilitate the exams taker(s) to excel. This could be through enslaving class work overload, which is exhausting to the young minds, or contracted through dishonest means. 

Whereas this may be unproven, it is reasonable to suspect that some of the top performers may have been assisted to pass highly. Therefore, if true (Uneb withholding results over malpractice is an indicator), then featuring uncaught characters as crème de la crème on televisions and radios or in newspapers on the one hand is an act of celebrating thieves and mediocrity, not talents. On the hand, it incentivises others in the know of the stars’ crooked deeds to indulge in malfeasance. As C.S. Lewis stated, “education without values, as useful as it is, seems rather to make man a … clever[er] devil”. 
 It is to argue that education must impart in a learner certain civilising and ethical values to be a more humane human distinct from being schooled, which relates to progression from one class or level to the next based on an individual’s ability to memorise and correctly answer questions set in exams from things taught or read.

The Ugandan media has shown limited strength in interrogating this holistic aspect, thereby steering public discourse to major in the minor marks/grade scored. This is a disservice.  

This line of thought leads me to return, as referenced earlier in this article, to Bloom’s six-point taxonomy useful for education stakeholders, among them teachers and I conscript journalists, to evaluate varied cognitive outcomes. These are remembering, which is recalling facts and basic concepts; understanding, the ability to explain ideas or concepts; applying, meaning the use of information in new situations; analysing, the ability to intersect ideas and draw intelligible conclusions; evaluation, which involves justifying one’s stand or decision; and, at the apex of the pyramid, creation, which denotes the acumen for original ideation or work. 

Broadly, according to Bloom, a holistic education must satisfy three core elements; that is to say, cognitive (intellectual learning), affective (values, interest and attitudes), and psychomotor (practical skills). If assigned equal values out of 100 percent, each variable is worth 33.3 percent. The format of Uneb exams largely tests the cognitive or one-third of a whole, leaving 66.6 percent virtually unexamined. So, the top grades that media houses, families and institutions run away with to celebrate is a tiny fraction of what should be holistic education, which explains why many high-flying students can talk but not do or are not always the most successful in real life. Why? The skill sets required to succeed on other fronts differ from the ability to memorise. There are also other odds.

Uneb’s questions may not cover what a candidate knows and expecting an individual to prove in 135 minutes or 150 minutes what they have learnt in seven or 13 years (primary plus secondary) is inherently problematic. The Psycho-social and physical state of the candidate such as illness, accident, changed family fortunes and grief may impact an exam taker’s performance, all of which Uneb is unconcerned with.

How to salvage situation
 It is on the above articulation that I convict us, newsrooms and media practitioners in Uganda, of being complicit in eroding the quality of education by giving undue attention, in effect shaping policy discourse, more narrowly to “top students, best schools” whenever results of national examinations are released. As I take leave of the matter, I proposition the following: 
 1.   Media houses disengage from the unjustified hyped coverage of examination results. They can, if necessary, report on it like other one-off calendar events.
2.  Families and educational institutions that want their top performers to feature in the media should pay for it and the content should clearly be labelled as advert. This will remove the temptation of alleged black market in results broadcast/publication and disincentivise the protagonists.  
3.  If issues 1 and 2 are agreeable, then the basis to pay Uneb Shs5m to Shs7m per result set will collapse on its own and voluntary assumption of loss by newsrooms terminated. 
4.  A research, covering a period not less than a decade, to inquire into where the best brains at PLE, O-level and A-level have ended. 
 In conclusion, the excessive coverage of exams results needlessly deepens loss for media houses, is largely bereft of news value and counterproductive as its narrow pinpoint on grades blind spots interrogation of elements of arguably more critical education outcomes: the affective (value systems) and the psychomotor (practical skills). The sin of the Ugandan media is bare. It should backpedal from the cliff edge and deliver a journalism that safeguards desperate parents/guardians against enslavement and extortionist tuition levied by schools that warehouse academic ‘giants’ that down the production line are cleverer devils than education intended to produce. 
The author is an alumnus of both the British Government’s Chevening Scholarship and US Government’s Fulbright (Hubert H. Humphrey) fellowship and presently the managing editor of Nation Media Group-Uganda. The views canvassed in this article are his own.
Email: [email protected]