As the dust settles, following what I consider the most disputed exam results since I qualified as a professional teacher in 1985, there are more questions than answers as whether the sparkling Primary Leaving Examinations 2018 results, mainly from new and relatively little known schools, were a product of improved teaching or cheating.
Daniel Kalinaki in Daily Monitor of January 24, 2019 summed it up thus, "of course every so often, a small school or a student in some far-flung corner of the country emerges to the top of the charts, but it is not every day that dozens, may be hundreds, of schools emerge from the shadows to the spotlight of academic excellence".
The public is dumbfounded and unable to decipher whether the voice of reason is from the bitter complaints of parents of premier urban schools alleging under-marking by Uganda National Examinations Board (Uneb) or the statements from Uneb secretary Daniel Odongo, emphasising that little known and rural schools had also discovered the formula of passing, following improved teaching methods and endowment with intelligence akin to that of their counterparts in urban areas.
Among the numerous articles that have been written concerning the 2018 PLE results, one by Dr Mesharch Katusiimeh in Daily Monitor January 23, 2019 by far fronts the most plausible hypothesis.
Dr Katusiimeh, my former colleague at Uganda Christian University, posits that 'the schools in Kampala and elsewhere that are unhappy with the PLE results probably have genuine results in light of the fact that they never cheated. I can imagine that they were affected by the alleged massive cheating of exams countrywide to the extent that UNEB upped their grading scale to accommodate very good marks to what many call "artificial or fake grades".
Despite our Ankole Diocesan schools continuing to perform as well as they have been, with first grade percentage pass of 14.3 for the 6,385 pupils that sat PLE (well above the national average of 11 per cent), there was a sharp drop in the stellar performance of our premier primary schools.
Mbarara Municipal Church School for the last 13 years has been topping the country in registering the highest number of first grades among UPE and private schools but in 2018 was ranked fourth, though not abnormal is suspect. When I asked one head-teacher about the spectacular results of some relatively new urban and rural schools showing 84 schools which scored 100 per cent pass in Grade One and a school that produced 54 Aggregate 4s and 79 Aggregate 5s, he said, "These must have been taught by angels not normal teachers."
For the record, I recalled that when my daughter, who has just graduated with BSc in Electrical Engineering at Makerere University, sat her PLE at Kampala Parents School in 2008, and scored Aggregate 4, there were 22 pupils who scored Aggregate 4 and 16 Aggregate 5.
This seemed to be a more reasonable performance. Testing Dr Katusiimeh's theory where he queried the discrepancy between PLE mock exams of 2018 and UNEB PLE results of 2018 that were done in a space of three months, I was able to establish that there was a missing link that could only be attributed to possible cheating, not improved teaching. According to the Mbarara Municipal Council Mock results 2018 and PLE results 2018, there is an unexplained difference between Mocks and UNEB results.
Making a case for Mocks
While Mbarara Preparatory School was ranked the best in Mocks in PLE 2018, it emerged 13th in PLE! Mbarara Municipal Church School which was the 4th in Mocks, turned out 18th in PLE! St. Agnes which was 5th in Mocks did not appear among the best 20 schools in PLE.
Mbarara Junior which was 6th in Mocks, was 16th in PLE! Interestingly, nine schools which did not appear among the best 20 in Mocks, emerged on the list of best 20 in PLE! Dr Katusiimeh echoed this thus, "In Sheema and Bushenyi, the districts that I am familiar with, my analysis shows that Mock grades/results as compared to 2018 UNEB PLE grades for a good number of schools, jumped for the better three or more times in just a space of three months".
Any seasoned professional teacher will know that there is often a correlation between Mock and final PLE results. To test the Katusiimeh hypothesis further, I was able to solicit some data on 2017 PLE pupils to see if they had performed well during the Senior One promotional exams, simply because 2017 PLE exams were also cheated by some schools.
Data which was availed to me from a top performing girls' school in western Uganda indicated that the 2017 PLE candidates who joined Senior One in 2018 performed dismally when it came to Senior One promotional exams! Thirty-nine students could not score an average of 55 per cent and above! While three students who had scored Aggregate 8 in PLE managed to score a paltry 40 per cent. One student who had scored Aggregate 6 in PLE could only manage 35.2 per cent. On the other side of the weighing scale, the best candidate in the class who scored an average of 89 per cent was a candidate who had scored 9 in PLE.
Two of the top five students came from Mbarara Junior School, a Church of Uganda school that is known for zero tolerance to cheating and Mbarara Preparatory, a private school whose track record is clean. In fact in my interaction with the Director of Studies at Mbarara Preparatory, he told me that despite their disappointment with results of PLE 2018, their students always perform well in top secondary schools which they join even with Aggregate 6, 7 or 8.
He informed me that in one of the top girls' schools in western region, two of their students were among the top three students in Senior One promotional exams, alongside another a student from Uganda Martyrs Namugongo.
Another tracer study that I conducted in a top boys secondary school showed that results of nine Senior One students posted in promotional exams to Senior Two, were in sharp contrast to their performance at PLE 2017. In this boy's school, the two students who emerged best at 87.9 per cent, had scored Aggregate 7 in PLE.
The third student had scored Aggregate 6 in PLE. One student from a school that is widely believed to have cheated exams in 2017 and 2018 and had scored Aggregate 5, only managed to score 65.1 per cent and was ranked 122nd in the whole class!
While there can always be different factors affecting performance of students, there ought to be a correlation between grades in Mocks, PLE and Senior One promotional exams. True, there was no under-marking of particular schools or regions, but certainly the indicators are that there was leakage of exams and cheating by some schools. This is undeniable since there is data to support this view. I am glad that the Senior Four UCE 2018 results look much more decent and have not attracted public uproar. This is a step in the right direction to intensify the security of exams throughout the process of setting, storage and delivery.
I earnestly look forward to a day when as Banyankore say, 'emanzi niziza kuhemuka' literally translated as 'when the mighty men/women of valour will be ashamed,' the day they cannot cheat exams.
It will not be enough to quiz the rudimentary cheats of exams such as the teachers of Bundibugyo who were writing answers to UNEB exams on the blackboards but it will require a high level of surveillance to nip in the bud the mainly urban technologically suave exam cheats who go undetected. As matters stand, the problem of leakage and/or cheating persists and as Rubashov says in Arthur Koestler's novel, Darkness at Noon, "we diagnosed the disease and its causes with microscopic exactness, but whenever we applied a healing knife, a new sore appeared".
The writer is Bishop of Ankole Diocese, former Dean of Faculty of Education Uganda Christian University, Mukono, former deputy head teacher at Ntare School and Kibubura Girls S.S.