Sunday, November 4, 2012

High-Stakes Testing Killing Kenya’s Education


According to a report of the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, Kenya Facts and Figures 2012, the Gross Enrollment Ratio (GER) in primary school was 115% in 2011. However, at 48.5%, the GER in secondary school was markedly lower than in primary school.

In real numbers, 9.85 million children were enrolled in primary school compared to the 1.8 million in enrolled in secondary school. Similarly, only 133000 and 198000 students were enrolled in middle level colleges and universities respectively in 2011. Why is progress in education so perilous for most of our children? Why is the quest for education associated with such a massive and unconscionable ruin of human potential? Are our children really incapable of high education attainment?

The catastrophic waste of human potential seems inexplicable until one accounts the outsized faith we have put on examinations. Our children are victims of high-stakes national examinations.

Thinking about the exam-centric education system reminds me of the logic of colonialism. The hegemony of the colonial state was advanced through the authority and tyranny of the settler minority with the support of a handful educated native acolytes. The raison d'être of education in the colonies was to cultivate a cadre of well-selected native acolytes capable of imitation and unquestioning execution at the behest of the colonial state.

Today, the Kenyan education system is centred on the authority of the curricular and the tyranny of high-stakes national examinations. The fact-laden curricular is sacrosanct; students have no chance to co-create or discover knowledge. Moreover, the oracular authority of the curricular and its high priest, the teacher annihilates the innate explanatory and logic paradigm for understanding the world, which young learners have.

The standardized national examinations have a tyrannical hold on students, teachers and parents. My high school headmaster referred to exams as a “necessary evil”. Evil from which we need divine deliverance. Weeks and days before the national examinations, students, teachers and parents congregate on bended knees to seek divine intervention.

Like every sphere of Kenya’s public life, the administration of examinations is plagued by maleficence. We know that parents, teachers and students collude to game examination outcomes. It is common knowledge that you could purchase examination papers for your children or students. A friend once told me that the national exam questions in the four A-level subjects he took were the same questions in their final school mock examinations.

Our exam-centric education system, especially the high stakes standardized examination, is the biggest purveyor of inequality in our country today. Winners and losers in our exam-centric education system map neatly along the fault lines of structural inequality, poverty and privilege in our country. Our education system fails hundreds of thousands of children from poor urban and rural families, who attend primary schools without adequate teaching and learning resources.

Conversely, our education system privileges a small minority of children who attend well-resourced urban public and private primary schools. Invariably, a large majority of these children make the grades to attend elite public secondary schools, pedigree that guarantees admission into undergraduate degree programs, which lead inevitably to prestigious professions.

For the massive outlay of public resources, 13.5% of the national budget, our education accomplishes far less for our children and society. Beyond memorization and regurgitation for the high-stakes national examinations, our education asks little of our children and teachers. In a majority of schools teachers are not focusing on teaching and learning, but on raising the mean grade in their respective subjects. As a consequence, our education has largely failed to develop the critical attributes of a competitive knowledge worker in a globalized world.

A recent report by Uwezo, a civil society group that monitors educational achievement, revealed that a majority of students complete primary school without being able to read or write or add. Similarly, there are increasing concerns about the state of undergraduate and graduate education. A majority of graduates our universities cannot write well and have no capacity for critical thinking and complex reasoning.

The national high stakes testing betrays an unnerving incapacity to re-imagine and re-create an education system that serves the urgent needs of a dynamic 21st century society. Given that the etiology of the dysfunction of our education system is founded in our colonial heritage and is deeply rooted in vested interests and political economy of the modern Kenyan state, bringing reforms to Kenya’s education system is akin to moving a cemetery.

Despite the drawbacks of our education system educators, from kindergarten to university,  unanimously agree that developing students’ capacities to think critically, intuitively, ensuring that they become adept at analytical and logical reasoning is the ultimate goal of education. More than facts and a high mean grade or grade point average, these capacities are the foundation for effective citizenship, civic leadership and economic productivity. 

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