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‘UNEB exams won’t be fair to rural-based learners’

Pupils of Kampala Parents School in class. FILE PHOTO

Should exams body maintain or relax standards for COVID-19 affected candidates?

Kampala, Uganda | RONALD MUSOKE | 

Stakes normally go a notch higher during national examinations as grades garnered in these tests endorse and set-up students to move from one level of formal education to another or even go straight into employment.

However, the outbreak of the Coronavirus pandemic which forced the closure of schools, made the exercise more complicated across the world. Several countries have since come up with innovative ways of conducting national examinations to ensure students safely transition to new levels.

In Uganda, national examinations which were meant to be held between October and December last year were extended to the first quarter of 2021. The newly released examination time table by the Uganda National Examination Board (UNEB) shows that P.7 candidates will now sit for their Primary Leaving Examinations (PLE) on March 30-31 while O-level candidates are expected to write their Uganda Certificate of Education (UCE) exams between March 01 and April 07. A-level candidates will begin their Uganda Advanced Certificate of Education papers on April 12 and finish on April 30. This followed re-opening of schools for candidate classes – P7, Senior 4 and Senior 6 on Oct.15, last year.

Equity in national examinations

But as students gear up for their final year exams, there are concerns on how UNEB will mark and grade the students. Will UNEB be cognizant of the disruptions in the learning experience of the 1.2 million learners who are preparing for the exams? Will the examiners exercise fairness and equity while setting and marking the candidates’ scripts?

Some educators The Independent has spoken to say since UNEB examinations most times determine the future of millions of young learners, the 2020 cohort should not be handled like their predecessors when life was normal.

Jaime Saavedra, the Global Director Education at the World Bank Group noted recently that much as public examinations can contribute to the personal development of individual students as well as enhance overall levels of knowledge and personal attributes in a system, ill-designed or poorly implemented public examinations, on the other hand, can produce more harm than good.

“They provide the basis for certifying a student as having completed a formal course of studies in an educational system or for employment, a particularly important consideration in countries with scarce employment opportunities and nonexistent unemployment supports.”

“(But) Because of the high stakes involved—for students, parents, teachers, and schools—these examinations can also have important unintended consequences, including their contribution to levels of student stress, early dropping out of school, and retention in grade.”

Thomas Kellaghan and Vincent Greaney have recently written for the World Bank a book on public examinations titled, “Public Examinations Examined.”

Kellaghan and Greaney noted that curriculum-based public examinations are used both to certify that students have reached a prescribed level of learning and to select students for the next level of education system or even for employment.

“They also play a selection role, as they are widely used to choose students for the next-highest level of an educational system, sometimes at the end of primary, more often during second-level, and most commonly at the end of second-level schooling, when they are generally used for selection to tertiary-level education,” they noted.

“They can play an important equity role in improving access as well; they help limit the effects of patronage and open up access to tertiary education to students from relatively disadvantaged backgrounds through various forms of support, including elimination of fees and provision of scholarships.”

Mary-Goretti Nakabugo, the executive director of Uwezo-Uganda, a Kampala-based non-profit that tracks education trends in the country told The Independent on Feb.17 that national exams are at the centre of Uganda’s education system.

Even before the pandemic struck Uganda in March, last year, Nakabugo said, PLE, UCE and UACE were quite high-stakes for everyone with interest in education.  The national exams will even take on more significance this year given the ever-growing inequalities in education in the country, she said.

“Given the fact that the learners come from different backgrounds and environment, the gap could have been widened with the coming of the pandemic,” Nakabugo said.

The Independent investigation done last year showed that while the few lucky learners were able to continue with their learning uninterrupted, thousands of candidates in the countryside sat home for close to a year pondering their next step with limited or no learning at all.

Rather than be in class or concentrate on virtual lessons and assignments dispatched via radio and television, most of the rural-based learners were spending most of their time helping out parents and guardians in the gardens.

When the Ministry of Education and Sports designed a Preparedness and Response Plan to the COVID-19 pandemic, the ministry included a focus on continuity of learning at home.

The plan involved the government working with a consortium of different stakeholders, under the guidance of the National Curriculum Development Centre (NCDC) to develop standardized study lesson packages in the key subjects for primary and secondary levels, to be aired on radio and television for two hours per day except Sunday. The government also printed and distributed education materials to learners countrywide.

But an investigation by The Independent showed that only limited learning actually took place in rural and provincial towns—thanks to limited access to electricity, radio, television, internet and even printed education materials.

For instance, learners in the Busoga sub-region (Iganga, Bugweri, Bugiri and Namayingo); Karamoja (Napak, Moroto, Nakapiripirit and Amudat) were found busy grazing cattle, fetching water and firewood and doing domestic chores.

In the northern region, learners in Kiryandongo, Gulu, Nwoya, Kitgum, Apac, Oyam, Kole and Lira, were busy helping their parents with farming activities, playing or roaming around villages.

In the northwestern sub-region of West Nile, children in Moyo and Adjumani; districts which flank either bank of River Nile, fishing had replaced books.

But Nicholas Sewajje, a teacher at Kireka High School in Kampala told The Independent on Feb.18 that he doubts whether UNEB will take into consideration these issues when setting or marking the examinations. He said UNEB usually sets examinations almost one or even two years in advance.

“The setters are usually called by UNEB to prepare for the setting right at the beginning of the year,” he says. “This means that the first set of examinations had already been done by the time the country went into lockdown.

“Unless it is being kept like a top secret, I have not heard anywhere that these examiners were called back to adjust or re-set another set of examinations. I doubt anything has changed,” he said.

Sewajje, who is also the co-founder of the non-profit Teacher Africa-Uganda and programmes director at the Uganda National Private Schools and Institutions told The Independent that he doubts equity will be achieved in the forthcoming national examinations.

“Agree or not, most Ugandan learners have missed quite a lot because of what they have gone through psychologically and the minimal contact with their teachers.”

Raymond Kigongo, a General Paper teacher based at St. Joseph S.S Nkooko in Kakumiro District in mid-western Uganda told The Independent that no discussions have come up recently in relation to setting new examinations.

Kigongo, who participates in the marking exercise of the national exams, says he sometimes encounters scripts from rural centres and wonder if these students have ever sat in a GP class.

“Now what’s going to happen in a year which has been disrupted by COVID-19?” he asked.    The upcoming examinations are not going to be fair for the majority of rural-based learners. The team of senior examiners usually set the exams based on syllabus, and they usually set these examinations sometimes two years before.”

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