17 February 2019

Uganda: Is the Current Exam System Misleading Parents, Students?


Good, relevant qualifications are earned through assessments and then open doors to higher study and to fulfilling lives. This makes exams absolutely important in any learner's education journey. But, broader, deeper learning rather than exam results in isolation, should be the goal in our education system as it is known that exams alone are not a key to success.

In recent years, exams have been given such a significance that they are in danger of undermining the very thing they are designed to encourage - a high quality broad- based education that prepares people for life. The current exam system has seen the rise of several institutions that some call 'exam results factories' whose existence is mainly to guarantee exam pass rates of registered students through a sequence of repetitive models that have mastered the Uganda National Examination Board (Uneb) mode of assessment.

This means that to many parents, the actual purpose of education has not been comprehended as well as the purpose of a first grade in the (Uneb) exam.

Because of the unwavering 'success' of these 'results-factory' schools, many parents have stampeded head teachers' office to get their children into these schools with the sole expectation of an impressive result slip regardless of how the child is taught.

The purpose of schooling is skewed in the process and parents are the inadvertent catalyst since many are unmindful of fact that a holistic education is more significant than the exam result. It is important to assess the school ethos, the school vision and values, analysis of the entire school curriculum offered besides the Uneb syllabus and ultimately take the alumni seriously to mention but a few.

Reading recent rants by a couple of parents on social media about their dismay of one popular city school that reported students' grades well below the expected; some threatening to protest against the exam board, or the school itself for failing their students despite the high tuition fees and extra school requirements compared to other (specifically rural) schools that had students with better grades, paid less tuition and almost no extra conditions required from students; underlines the misapprehension of what a good education is.

Hence the message to all those grieving parents that exams grades alone do not mean that one, necessarily, has a better education and indeed does not guarantee success.

More successful people were not always the students that got the top grades, but they are individuals that worked hard and developed their strengths amid entanglements, impediments, disappointments, and oversights. The ability to understand and be prepared to prevail over such challenges is part of the main chunk of a good education. This is why schools such as Namasagali, albeit their current standard, boast of a deep notable alumni based on its original college ethos and values.

What are exams actually for? Are they simply an instrument to transpose a student's intellectual capability into a meaningful value? That seems simple enough, but who are exams actually for? Students, parents, teachers, universities and the government are all stakeholders, however, the clear answer (beneficiary) is the employer.

If the purpose of education is to equip learners with the right tools needed to survive in the real world, then exams are certainly not the only route to this survival, but should ultimately allow a potential employer to assess how good you would be for a job.

Having asked myself these questions, I now believe that Uganda is peddling a decaying education system that is driven by a broken exam system. Anyone familiar with the current rituals of schooling knows how the entire experience of learning is centred on just one goal - how to get good marks in Uneb examinations.

This instrumental approach denies the society of creativity, and for students, it takes away the joy of learning, restrains them and makes it almost impossible for them to go deeper into issues. In some countries, this has led to the existence of parallel schooling approaches such as home tutorial or coaching centres.

The current exam model equates intelligence with writing and memory, when this is simply not true. The ability to write well is an incredibly valuable and sought after attribute, however, we should be exploring a variety of skills.

For instance, instead of just the written exam, why not the 'spoken exam'? This would allow students to engage in thoughtful discussions with the examiner, demonstrating communicative skills by unpacking the meaning of Shakespeare's chosen play script or debating the causes of the World War II, for example.

We need to recognise that some (many) people find it difficult to write and this doesn't make them stupid. Writing is not the sole way of transcribing intellect and that enhanced practices and discussions should play a larger role in the examination process.

To help alleviate many existing exam-related costs, the current assessment system in Uneb needs an overhaul. Consideration needs to be given to diversified skills testing, continuous assessment, progress tests and more rigorous schools' accountability other than first grades etc.

To many, first grade does not mean much after looking at the actual subject grades like 4/5 in primary or 6/8 in O-Levels. The measure of 1st, 2nd or 3rd grades is considered well archaic and does not serve a purpose to parents or employers in the competitive market place which also exacerbates the problem.

Mr Maserejje is the director of Faculty Harris

Academy, London UK & Senior Consultant at Elimisha Education. @maseyjay, [email protected]


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