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Defiance and resilience: What explains the unexpected results for 12th-Grade exams in post-war Tigray region

Two weeks ago, it was announced that 66.96% of the Grade 12 students in Tigray who took the school leaving exams achieved a passing mark of 50% or above (Photo: Social Media)

By Mihret G/kristos @MercyG_kirstos

Addis Abeba – Recently, the news that only 3.3% of the 896,520 students who took the 12th-grade exit exams were able to achieve a score above 50% sent shockwaves across the country. The disappointing result which was registered for the past two years in a row prompted even members of parliament to express their frustration when Education Minister Professor Berhanu Nega appeared before the House of People’s Representatives on 19 October, 2023.

During the parliamentary session, Negeri Lencho (PhD), the chair of the Standing Committee on Human Resource Development, Employment, and Technology Affairs, directed his criticism towards the Ministry of Education, holding the institution accountable for this failure. He also called for an investigation into the matter. However, Berhanu emphasized that these results signify a shared failure and that everyone, including parents, must take responsibility.

Neither Negeri nor Berhanu had anticipated the news that arrived five days after the parliamentary hearing. In Tigray, a region ravaged by the two-year war, an impressive 66.96% of the Grade 12 students who took the school leaving exams achieved a passing mark of 50% or above, enabling them to qualify for university admission.

Among the top performers in the Tigray region is 21-year-old Ataklti Mebrahtu, who hails from Agbe, an improvised district located in Central Tigray Zone. Despite being disabled due to the conflict between the federal government and the Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF), Ataklti scored an impressive 556 in the 12th-grade exit exams, placing him among the top ten students in Agbe Secondary School.

Ataklti’s educational journey was marred by the war, as he was unable to sit for the entrance exam for three consecutive years due to the conflict and the COVID-19 pandemic. Compelled to join the war effort to support Tigrayan fighters, Ataklti sustained a spinal cord injury that left him paralyzed.

“When I consulted medical professionals, they informed me that I required surgery, medication, and physical therapy to address the nerve issue,” he shared with Addis Standard. “However, capacity limitations prevented me from accessing these treatments.”

Despite facing physical and mental trauma, Ataklti expressed his happiness at achieving his results, emphasizing his determination and refusal to let his disability define him. “While studying for the exam, I experienced both physical and mental pain,” he recalls. “However, I scored very well because I never gave up, even though I am disabled.”

What makes Ataklti even sadder than his injury is the loss of his dearest friends and classmates who were supposed to sit for the exam with him. “Whenever I think about them, I feel sad.”

Before the war, Ataklti had a vision of pursuing a career in medicine after completing high school. “But now, life has changed everything, and I don’t think I can pursue a career as a medical professional.”

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Nevertheless, he remains committed to advocating for the return of Tigray children to school, urging support from the interim administration and concerned authorities.

Similar to Ataklti, a total of 9,514 students took the 12th-grade exit exams, which were administered over a three-day period starting on October 10th, within the premises of Mekelle, Aksum, Adigrat, and Raya universities across the region.

According to the Tigray Education Bureau, 73.09% of students took natural science courses, while 51.38% opted for social science courses. The highest score of 657 was achieved by Mussie Kidane from Kallamino Special High School, established in 1998 by the Tigray Development Association (TDA).

Even though Liwam Kiros, a 21-year-old student from Kallamino Special High School, had sustained an injury to her left foot during the war, she still managed to score 562 in the 12th-grade exit exam (Photo: Social Media)

Kiros Gush, the head of the bureau, explained in a recent interview with the BBC that 240 selected teachers assisted students who took the grade 12 exams during their two-month preparation period at the four government universities. These teachers shared dormitories and food with the students, provided by the universities.

Ataklti, who spent the preparation period at Adigrat University, stated that it was very challenging for a disabled person like him to access basic needs at the higher learning institution. However, he emphasized that this two-month period greatly helped him in his success.

Kiros also attributed the success of Tigray students to factors such as their age, concentration, and resilience in the face of adversity. “Most students in Tigray who dropped out four years ago are now 22 years old, which positively impacts their scores as their concentration improves with age and they acquire the ability to maturely tackle the exam in a short period.”

The head of the education bureau added that students who have been displaced from school in the last four years often feel frustrated and left behind by their peers. “This frustration acts as a motivating factor, leading them to work harder and pay more attention to their studies.”

Kiros is talking about students like Mussie Kidane, a 22-year-old student and the highest scorer in Tigray, who overcame obstacles caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Tigray through resilience and learning from life’s difficulties. Mussie returned to Hawzen to take care of his family when the war broke out, which took the lives of his friends and classmates. Although such tragedy took an emotional toll on me, I believe that difficult life experiences teach important lessons and can be used as strength to propel oneself forward.”

Many students who scored high in the grade 12 exams, like Ataklti and Mussie, demonstrated determination and resilience. However, for students like Liwam Kiros, a 21-year-old from Kallamino Special High School who scored 562 in the 12th-grade exit exam, the challenge is even tougher since she is both female and disabled.

Liwam, a disabled ex-fighter from Tigray, sustained an injury to her left foot after fighting on various fronts for a year. She is currently undergoing medical treatment at a military camp in Mekelle, the capital of Tigray. Despite the tragic losses experienced during the war, Liwam expressed her happiness at passing the exam and her determination to continue striving towards her goals in life.

“I have endured tragic incidents,” Liwam stated. “Nevertheless, my determination remains unwavering as I strive to achieve my goal until the very end of life’s journey.” AS

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