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February 23, 2019

ALEX AWITI: National exams an unfair system

Alidina visram KCSE candidates during their KCSE exams in Mombasa yesterday.Photo / JOHN CHESOLI
Alidina visram KCSE candidates during their KCSE exams in Mombasa yesterday.Photo / JOHN CHESOLI

About 664,000 candidates are sitting the 2018 Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education examination. According to Richard Siele, my headmaster at Maseno School, examinations are a necessary evil.

The candidates have spent countless hours working with their peers, teachers and parents. And yes, prayers have been said. In previous years, hundreds of millions, maybe billions, were spent corrupting the exam process; buying questions or bribing officials who supervise the administration of the exams or gaming the grading process.

Despite the hard work put in and the prayers said, hundreds of thousands of hearts are still anxious. Shadows of uncertainty, even fear, stalk the candidates, their parents and teachers. For the candidates, the KCSE exam is a do-or-die affair.

Somehow we have convinced them that their future depends hugely on the grade they score in KCSE exam. This year about 70,000 security personnel from the regular and Administration Police as, well as Prison service, have been deployed to deter cheating. Seriously?

We have made education nothing more than the grade that students score in this one standardised national test. Hence, not scoring a C+ (plus) grade, the minimum grade for university admission, is like a death sentence. Given the pass rate in 2016 and 2017, about 575,000 students who are now writing their KCSE exam will not qualify to enter university. What will happen to them?

The 89,000 who will enter university will be the victors, hoisted shoulder-high and greeted with song and dance. The successful candidates will credit hard work, teachers, parents and God. The 575,000 students who will not enter university will be considered failures and many will despair.

But we all know the students who ace the exam are not as smart as their grades suggest. Similarly, not all the students who fail to get the minimum grade to enter university are dim-witted. A majority of them are smart, just as smart if not smarter than their university-bound peers.

Invariably, a majority of the A and B grade students come from the so-called national schools and private schools. In 2017, 68 of the top 100 schools were national schools and private schools. Twenty-six in the top 100 were the relatively well-resourced, high performing public schools classified as extra-county. Only four poorly resourced subcounty schools made the top 100 list.

Think about it. What kinds of family backgrounds and geographies do children who attend private, national and extra-county schools come from?

Evidently, the standardised KCSE exam is everything but a fair system. It is blind to the staggering inequalities in our school system, which divides neatly along socioeconomic status among students and underlines the historical patterns of egregious spatial inequalities that have persisted in spite of devolution.

Across the country, students and schools are so different and unequal. Therefore, standardised exams are analogous to grading a monkey, an elephant, a penguin and a fish based on their ability to climb a tree. Good luck to the candidates.

Alex O Awiti is the director of the East Africa Institute at Aga Khan University

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