National exams: Is pass rate a reliable yardstick of quality education?

For the past year, Ishimwe Newland has focused on one thing and one thing only — national examinations.

12 to 15 hours a day, he studied for the university entrance examination, which this year, according to statistics released recently, will determine the fate of more than 51,291 secondary students. He takes one day off every week. 

Ishimwe was carrying a textbook from room to room last week on Monday morning, when he learned about the official announcement to schools from the Ministry of Education, that students were approaching their “final days” and the timetables for both primary level and ordinary level had been released. 

“Of course you want to take back the days and buy more time for preparations, but at this point in time, with just 30 days to exams, I need to do all I can,” he told Education Times.

Students during an exam. File.

Ishimwe, a senior six student offering mathematics, computer studies and economics (MCE) at Nu-Vision High School, is of the view that comfort zone should be adjusted, and students should work hard until the last minute. “And I hope that pass rates continue to shoot high as it has been in the recent years.” 

Rwanda’s education sector may be evolving at steady speed, but the ritual of the national examinations ranging from primary to secondary level of education remains as absolute as chopsticks.

The three-hour exam is offered just once a year and is the sole determinant for admission to virtually all local universities. And for all other students who move to the next step of their academic journey.

Ministry of Education statistics indicate that over 286,087 candidates will be sitting their primary leaving examinations, implying a 10 per cent increase from last year’s 255,578 candidates. With 131,748 number of boys and 154,339 number of girls.

Again this year, the ordinary level examinations will facilitate over 119,932 candidates, this also indicates up 98,898 candidates who sat last year. Hence a 17.5 per cent increase. This combines 65,429 number of girls that beats 54,503 number of boys.

Dr Alphonse Sebaganwa, the head of examinations, selection and assessment department at Rwanda Education Board (REB), says he is optimistic that the forth-coming examinations will be carried out smoothly.

He points out that security of these documents is guaranteed by Rwanda National Police, and that invigilators are trained to ensure that the three- day exercise is incident-free.

“Exams are protected from the beginning to the end to ensure cases of malpractices are minimised and that there is no leakage or delays,” he adds.

Primary Leaving Examinations are scheduled early next month from November 4 to 6. Ordinary level candidates will sit for their exams from 12 to 19 the same month.

Pass rate? Behind the numbers

Regardless of all odds, the trend has been shooting up high in regards to pass rate of the examinations, especially among the young female candidates.

Last year alone, A level (advanced level) students recorded a pass rate of 88.2 per cent, with boys contributing to 93.3 per cent compared to 84 per cent for girls.

Whereas in ordinary level last year, eight out of the 10 best candidates were girls. In primary, the performance was even.

But the million dollar question as raised by experts still stands — “Is it about the pass rate or the quality?”

Maurice Twahirwa, the head teacher at APADET Primary School, believes that this aspect should be more of a reinforcement to the quality of education that students walk out a certain level with.

He adds that in such moments were there is hardly a sigh of relief amongst educators and students, it must be put at the forefront that all this is a move to enhance the quality of education obtained by the students, other than a school’s reputation of having candidates with the best performing records.

“Often, when we (schools) get to this, we tend to put the school’s reputation ahead of what we are packaging for our students, even in the aftermath of school. But schools should understand that quality education comes before pass rate. They should know that it is wrong to engage in malpractice and other shady acts just for recording high numbers of performance,” Twahirwa says.

For Minani Olivier, teacher and IT expert, these are the moments where educators should emphasise the concept to students because their brains are ready to grasp anything that comes up.

“Actually teachers should be using this ample time to make students understand deeply the concept of what they are learning. Rather than work in such a way that they only look forward to completing a syllabus. Yet this, in the long run, affects a child’s education growth,” Minani says.

Diana Uwonkunda, a teacher at Excella School, is of the view that investing in education should have a long term impact.

Therefore, she says, when students are not helped to understand the solemn concept of what they are studying, then they are indirectly deprived of the long term impact.

She adds, “It is one thing to have huge and impressive numbers of candidates’ pass rates and another to have students graduating with high quality education.”

For Jonathan Gasana, a student, there is absolutely no time to waste as days have gone by.

“Studying to pass is not the main objective these days, the main goal is to understand the concept fully. I believe understanding provides a flexible attitude towards any question asked from that particular field,” Gasana says.

National examinations for other classes

As opposed to the previous norm, starting this year, students in all secondary level classes will be having a uniform examination respective to their levels.

The call was made by the State Minister of Education in charge of primary and secondary education earlier this year.

This, he said, was a move to harmonise the national exams fever that normally strike students when they are about to sit for them.

However, this will also ensure that teachers’ evaluation is closely monitored as some teachers are reluctant to do their work.

Contacted for a comment, Jean Nepo Nizeyimana, a teacher and counsellor, believes that examining students uniformly will improve the sector.

“We all know that a senior one student from a certain school was not examined the same way another senior one student was in a different school. However, with this initiative being implemented, it means that they will now be examined similarly.

“Implying that students will be expected to be on the same coverage irrespective of their schools,” Nizeyimana says. 

Comfort Nkurunziza, a S5 student at CGFK, says, “I think that students will no longer be scared to sit for national examinations, because we are going to get used to the setting through this initiative, thus, even minimise the fear caused by the exams.”

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