Last year's O-level exam results released last week offered a curious peek behind the drop in overall performance.
An Observer investigation has found that the Uganda National Examination Board, Uneb, changed the examination game irrevocably, and put more emphasis on examining the students' understanding of subjects taught rather than their power to remember what was taught through cramming their class notes.
Uneb Executive Secretary Mathew Bukenya said the exams were set to examine the acquisition of knowledge and skills in various areas.
"[We] examined such things as functional literacy, comprehension, application and analytical skills, manipulation of scientific apparatus, science process skills and interpretation among others," Bukenya said while releasing the results on Thursday.
In the past, exam papers tended to demand that students list what they saw as answers to a question. However, the last set of question papers asked students to justify, rationalize or debate theories they had been taught in school.
"Consequently several students, who were unable to explain themselves in the language of examination, got stuck and many failed," Uneb Chairman Fagil Mandy said.
"At some centres, teachers are encouraging students to cram passages from English language texts, or what they call 'model compositions' and reproduce these irrelevantly," Bukenya weighed in.
He said that in humanities, which are usually done better, questions that required candidates to draw from personal experiences were poorly answered. In sciences, students were unable to explain their results through graphs and tables. Many also failed simple mathematical calculations like finding the compound interest, which is in regular use in banking.
Bukenya criticized head teachers who resorted to theoretical teaching of sciences despite recent practical interventions by government. And Mandy explained that Uneb was going to continue this transformation, over the next years.
"Those teachers who are teaching students to cram theories and principals and read pamphlets instead of reading widely should know that their students are going to fail," Mandy warned.
He added that Uneb was responding to concerns from the public.
"As you know it is Uneb to set the tune; if we set easy exams students are taught only the soft stuff, but now we want students to study widely," he said.
Mandy was responding to concerns raised from Makerere University in 2007. Professors complained then that Uneb exams were not reliable as a measure of a students' intellectual maturity required at the university. Many students who score As at A-level are found wanting at the university. The Law school, for instance, noted that many of its graduates, who enter with As, fail the pre-entry exams that one pass to join the Law Development Centre (LDC)'s bar course.
Now the University's colleges of Engineering and Health Sciences are contemplating setting pre-entry exams - in a bid to lock out students with questionable As.
"We would like to have students who can think for themselves and not those who cram their notes to pass exams," said a lecturer at Makerere's college of Health Sciences.
But the concerns are not restricted to Makerere. The Uganda Christian University in Mukono and the Islamic University in Uganda are also holding pre-entry exams for students seeking to study for a degree in law.
While Uneb warning and the trends at university have been mentioned previously, it appears the message is only trickling down to upcountry schools, if the general national performance can be used as a yardstick. Schools closer to Kampala had more students in first division compared to their counterparts upcountry.
The table prepared shows the national picture, ranging from first to fourth division across the country. As expected, Wakiso comes at the top of the table followed by Kampala, Mukono, Mbarara and Bushenyi.
Teopista Birungi Mayanja, the secretary general of the teachers union, Unatu has severally complained about the little pay for teachers. She has called for a 100% pay rise; a call government has been slow to answer.
Experts argue that government's reluctance to pay teachers better is also largely to blame for the dismal performance of students because teachers' loyalties are now divided between making money elsewhere and teaching.
What students say:
Uneb Chairman Fagil Mandy said he interviewed about one million students countrywide. The students were asked three questions: Why exams are necessary? Why do some people fail? What activities will you engage in to enable you pass?
About failure, Mandy said the students cited four major reasons--love affairs, laziness, poor time management and wrong attitude. On why exams are necessary, the students said exams are vital because they engage and test one's ability and are key for one to choose a good career.
On the third question, which many mushrooming schools ignore, the students said they need to play and engage in co-curricular activities.