School exit exam needs universities’ active involvement

In October 2022 the ministry of education introduced a new strategy for the administration of the Ethiopian School-Leaving Certificate Examination (ESLCE). The higher education system was instrumental in the delivery of the exam and the process enabled academics to observe first-hand the challenge of poor-quality education.

This served as a reminder of how urgent quality improvements are across the education system. We know, in simple terms, the quality of education often depends on input, process and output. One of the inputs into higher education is students from secondary schools.

In Ethiopia, admission to a public university is based on a student’s ESLCE results, which is conducted following the completion of secondary school, or grade 12. This is a national examination administered by Educational Assessment and Exams Services (EAES), an agency under the ministry of education.

Until this year, ESLCE was administered in each secondary school across the country. It had become a national and political issue in 2016 when examination papers were stolen and uploaded on various social media sites.

This forced the government to cancel the examination on the first day it was to be administered across the country. Since then, ESLCE administration has become one of the major problems facing the ministry.

What has made the situation worse is the ever-growing nepotism and the involvement in the ESLCE scandal of individuals working at different government administrations – including federal, regional, zone, and district levels.

ESLCE as a political tool

As Nelson Mandela said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” However, in the past six years, ESLCE, which is part of the education system in Ethiopia, has been used as a political weapon by activists, separatists and politicians to divide Ethiopian society along ethnic lines, disregarding its consequences on the future of the youth population, and the country in the long run.

Generally speaking, for the past six years, ESLCE apparently has become a headache for the federal government, the ministry of education, the majority of students, parents and Ethiopian society.

The ministry of education has been thinking about strategies to halt cheating in the ESLCE.

Accordingly, in 2020, it proposed to administer the examination online by providing thousands of tablets to examinees. However, this was not achieved as planned, mainly because of the lack of the tablets, internet connection problems and digital skills.

The other strategy that has been proposed entails administering the examination in public universities with the contributions of different stakeholders including public universities, regional, state and city administration education bureaus, and law enforcement agencies.

This strategy was implemented in the 2022 ESLCE which took place from 7-21 October 2022.

According to the ministry, about 937,000 students sat for the examination which was administered in public universities, geographically located in all regional states and city administrations except Tigray, which is at war.

The ministry has also mobilised about 6,000 law enforcement officers, 25,000 supervisors (selected from secondary school principals) and invigilators (volunteer academic staff of public universities).

For example, about 500 academic staff of Addis Ababa University were involved as invigilators. Bahir Dar University hosted the highest number of students (56,250) as well as invigilators and supervisors (1,450).

What changed?

Public universities sent students home to prepare for the ESLCE and accommodate secondary school students.

They also called off teaching-learning at all levels and most of their activities for about a month. Each public university served as an exam centre for grade 12 students who came from the cities where the universities are located as well as neighbouring cities and towns. The universities provided food, accommodation and health services during the stay of the school students.

These students are not allowed to bring any electronic equipment, including cellphones and smartwatches, or to leave campus until the end of the examination (that is, they are disconnected from the community outside the university, including their families).

Some of the students were not happy about these and other strict measures taken by the ministry because they did not prepare well for the exam and assumed there would be a possibility of cheating and receiving illegal support from third parties during the examination, which was the case in the past six years.

To ensure security around and within the universities, the government took extra measures, including deploying thousands of federal police, regional police and regional special forces. Only invigilators, supervisors and university staff members with permission badges were allowed access to university campuses.

Except for chief supervisors and some of the staff of the host university, no one was allowed to bring any electronic gadgets, including cellphones, into the university compound.

Lessons learned

Major stakeholders, including the ministry, agree that the quality of education is declining at all levels. However, universities take the lion’s share of the blame because the outcome of the education system is often evaluated based on graduate employability.

Universities, therefore, need to do their best to improve the knowledge, skills, attitudes and competencies of their graduates, but this depends on the quality of students who are admitted and placed by the ministry of education.

During ESLCE, academics witnessed that, after 12 years in school, there are students who were not able to write their names without looking at the admission card, and not able to understand instructions.

In different exam centres, some students wanted to withdraw from the exam because they were not allowed to copy and cheat. Others withdrew because of this and other unspecified reasons.

Although academics were aware of the quality of students who had been placed in their respective universities, they had never fully realised that the result of poor-quality education was this low.

Academics were assigned to different public universities, excluding the university where they teach and universities that were situated in the region of their birthplaces. Supervisors were also assigned to universities that were outside the region of their birthplaces.

Although there is no official statement from the ministry regarding this placement approach, invigilators and supervisors believe that this is a strategy used to minimise any ethnic sentiment which was one of its major challenges in the past five years.

This clearly shows the serious impacts of the politicisation of ethnicity on education and the level of ethnic segregation in Ethiopian society.

It also shows the development of favouritism based upon ethnic allegiance – even at the expense of issues of national importance such as education. It is unfortunate, but the placement implies that, in this case, even the academics are not trustworthy.

Although this strategy is costly and has some drawbacks such as disrupting the academic calendar of public universities, mobilising students, and context-specific planning (for example, accommodation for invigilators), it has been lauded by the academic community and society at large.

It can be argued that the strategy has achieved its major envisioned objective, and this is expected to be reflected in students’ exam results – of course, if there are no errors in the marking of exams, which has been raised as a problem.

Yet, it is clear that the quality of higher education cannot be ensured only by implementing a good assessment approach at the end of secondary school.

There should be different educational support and assessment systems that need to be provided and carried out at all levels of the education system, such as pre-primary to tertiary.

Generally, experiences from the exam have left the ministry, universities, schools and parents with a lot of questions. And the government has to keep paying attention to save education from further failure.

Dr Abebaw Yirga Adamu is an associate professor of higher education at Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia. He was director of the Ethiopian Institute for Higher Education, a Global Dialogue fellow of NAFSA: Association of International Educators (2019-21), and International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX) university administration support programme research management fellow. He can be contacted at

This commentary was updated on 4 November.