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Editorial: Fixation on exam results is leaving a trail of disarray in Ethiopia’s education. Look beyond!

Addis Abeba – For a second year in a row, Ethiopia’s Ministry of Education delivered the shocking news to every household with a student that the dreams and hopes of hundreds of thousands to pursue education are cut short, for many, irreversibly. This, the Ministry insisted, is the outcome of its newly introduced strict measures to standardize the national school leaving exams in order to discourage cheating.

In both years, just a little over 6% of students who sat for the exams scored the 50% passing mark out of a combined of more than 1.7 million regular students who took the exams; numerically speaking this represents a meager 57,176 students who scored 50% and above to join universities and pursue tertiary education.

At face value, this shocking revelation may seem the result of the ministry’s daring intervention in tightening control over exam cheating. Unsurprisingly therefore many are falling for it due mainly to its simplicity in explaining away the complex factors contributing to the gradual deterioration of the status of education in Ethiopia; many are also hailing the ministry’s crusade against exam cheating as a success story.

The quintessential debate on the topic however revolved around the challenges of balancing two essential goals in the field: making education available to all and ensuring that the education provided is of high quality.

But if one closely examines the disturbing trends compounding the education sector in Ethiopia, in particular over the last five years, nothing could be further from the truth.

Over the past three decades, with nearly 30 million students enrolled at primary and secondary levels, and over 130,000 students entering higher education annually, Ethiopia was hailed for achieving commendable progress to make education accessible for majority, if not for all.

The quintessential concern, however, revolved around the challenges of balancing the two essential goals in the field: making education available to all and ensuring that the education provided is of high quality.

Admittedly, as a country that continued to have a staggering number of illiteracy rates, the Ethiopia of the last three decades was not immune from this dilemma that many least developed countries around the world are confronted with: the massive expansion of access to education in Ethiopia came at the unfortunate compromise of quality education as is the case globally.

In his latest appearance before members of the parliament, education minister Berhanu Nega expressed his frustrations over the inefficacy of grade eight students to read and write. His frustrations are understandable, but his ministry’s laser-focused approach to address the matter by applying measures to avoid exams cheating has distracted the nation from confronting the multiple other factors that are severely impacting education in Ethiopia.

The wanton destruction over the last five years of education infrastructure, such as the destruction of nearly 9, 000 schools due to wars and militarized violence across the country, is but one of the glaring factors that neither the ministry, nor politicians want to discuss openly. Teaching materials, including books and laboratory equipment, have never been liquidated, many deliberately, in Ethiopia at such scale as we have witnessed during this period.

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The wars and widespread violence have also left countless qualified teachers either killed, maimed or simply disappeared, depriving schools across the country the skilled manpower they desperately need to fuel the engine of knowledge.

There is also another elephant in the room: the impacts that closure of schools, mass displacements, and disruption of regular classes bring about on students’ ability to learn both physically and psychologically; the impacts of such brutal disruption of the teaching-learning routine processes in creating learning gaps; as well as the direct and indirect impacts on the lives and educational experiences of young students for years to come.

Equally missing from this equation is the alarming decline in education investment by the current government and the wide-ranging and detrimental impacts it is having on education. This includes the government’s resistance to provide decent wages to teachers and the lack of affirmative policy mechanisms to support their professional developments.

It is not clear if the ministry has a comprehensive assessment, or acknowledgement of such debilitating factors affecting education in Ethiopia. But going by its own assessment, out of the country’s 47,000 primary and secondary schools, only four were able to meet the established standards. A staggering 85.9% of the primary and secondary schools were classified as “significantly below standard.”

Another evaluation conducted by the same ministry has it that only a quarter of elementary and high school teachers successfully passed an exam designed to assess their proficiency. If a country’s education is broken to this level, it is only fair to assume that it is not just deteriorating, but it has collapsed.

The blame is often laid on the education policy of the previous government, especially its language policy of prioritizing access to education in mother tongue. The minister took that a notch up when he blamed everyone, including parents for the failure. But such reductionist and oversimplified responses should be replaced by a thorough investigation to get to the root cause of it, as was sternly recommended by MP Negeri Lencho, chair of the Standing Committee on Human Resource Development.

Take for example a recent publication by UNICEF, which revealed that more than7.6 million children are out of schools due to conflicts and disasters, whereas a total of 8,552 (20%) of the schools in Ethiopia were either completely or partially damaged. It is not clear if the ministry’s crusade to fix the problem of quality education through exam cheating prevention methods took the trouble of extrapolating this sobering assessment into account.

Given these inescapable facts, however, it becomes unambiguous that the overall teaching-learning process, and Ethiopia’s education system in its entirety, is in total disarray for which the ministry’s incisive focus appears to be the wrong approach.

The reverberating impact of this single-minded crusade is multiple, and can prove to be equally fatal in deteriorating the little gains Ethiopia has made to ensure access to education for all.

As a result, and unlike in the past, Ethiopia is on path neither on finding the delicate balance between access to education and quality education, nor on careful planning, efficient allocation of resources, and innovative approaches to address both, despite the difficulties. Instead, scrutinizing exam results and the subsequent mass failure of students is being taken as the ultimate yardstick of the ministry’s efforts to ensure quality education.

The reverberating impact of this single-minded crusade is multiple, and can prove to be equally fatal in deteriorating the little gains Ethiopia has made to ensure access to education for all over the last three decades, despite the obvious limits on quality.

For one, it discourages parents from sending their kids to school only to waste 12 years of their precious time instead of helping in household chores, a widespread belief that Ethiopia has labored so hard to reverse since the time of the military Derg.

For another it demoralizes hundreds of thousands of students who, despite their academic limitations, remain determined to pursue education with hopes that advancing in education will provide them with access to resources.

For another it demoralizes hundreds of thousands of students who, despite their academic limitations, remain determined to pursue education with hopes that advancing in education will provide them with access to resources to develop their skills academically and in their future careers.

In a country that remains besieged by an unacceptable illiteracy rate, coupled with a declining state investment in education, normalizing the eligibility of only 3.2% out of about a million students to join universities once a year will also end up not only discouraging parents’ motivation to invest in their kids’ education, but it will end up rewarding a system of elite education at the expense of the mass.

It is imperative that the ministry considers loosening its grip on university entrance exams, at least until a comprehensive approach into the multidimensional reasons is established, and until each and every factor is duly addressed.

Fixation on scrutinizing exams cheating while avoiding the more pertinent and pressing factors will not ensure quality education, it endangers access to education for all, and breeds illiterate generations by making education accessible for a select few. Time to look beyond! AS

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