HE to feel impact of shocking school-leaving exam results
The ministry revealed that, of the nearly one million school students who wrote the national school-leaving exams, only 3.3% – a meagre 29,909 students – managed to score the required 50% to pass. The details are more telling.
In the natural sciences stream, 339,642 students took the exams, but only 22,936 students, or 8.6% passed. Similarly, from the 556,878 social sciences students who sat for the exam, only 1.3%, or 6,973, students managed to score above 50%.
The highest achievement in the natural science stream was recorded by a male student who scored 666 out of 700, whereas 524 was recorded as the best result secured by a female in the social science stream. Only 10 social science students scored above 500 points out of 600 and 263 natural science students scored above 600 out of 700 points.
Those who wrote the exams came from 2,959 regular high schools across the country. At 1,161 of these schools, not a single candidate passed and, at 1,789 schools, one or more students passed.
The results of male and female students also show a significant difference in achievement. In all cases, male candidates outperformed females. The meanings and implications of this reality are wide-ranging and require serious reflection at all levels.
A ‘new’ or ‘hidden’ reality?
In his briefing about the issue, Education Minister Professor Berhanu Nega emphasised that this year’s results are a clear indication of the multiple challenges the sector has been entangled with for a long time.
The expansion drive that has been a typical feature of the sector for more than two decades has set off the Ethiopian system’s growth at a speed unrivalled in comparison with similar systems at a global level.
It may be difficult to dismiss the positive gains of the past few decades but the system has been overwhelmed by a plethora of maladies, including excessive politicisation, corruption, ethnic strife, poor infrastructure, unprepared students, ill-qualified, poorly paid and restive staff, and numerous other challenges that have continued to rock the sector.
The deterioration of educational quality at tertiary level has been affected by the poor level of student preparation at the lower schools, in particular, the increasing politicisation of the system that undermines meritocracy and the lack of accountability that continues to stall the capacity of making the right moves at the right time.
Using corrupt and unethical practices to get students to the next level without the necessary preparations and their having the abilities have been one typical manifestation of the system.
Schools, teachers and principals, regional-level authorities and politicians have often been implicated for encouraging this malpractice to a point where passing national exams has become an expression of a political contestation rather than a manifestation of students’ competence. It was partly the need to undo these practices that forced the Ethiopian Ministry of Education to conduct the 2021-22 national examinations in universities and under strict supervision.
The shocking results declared by the ministry are, therefore, not as startling for those who knew of these frightening developments during the past two decades.
The pass requirement of 50% was set long ago by the 1994 Education and Training Policy but its implementation has never been a concern.
Furthermore, declining student achievements were openly published in nationally available data such as the National Learning Assessment (NLA) results issued at different intervals, but were not made, as is the case now, a public issue of concern.
Time and again, the findings of successive NLAs in Ethiopia indicated that the national mean score of subjects for all grades was less than the 50% achievement level set by the ministry of education. For instance, the mean score of all grade 12 subjects in 2010 was 47.8% and only 34.9% of the students who took the national exam scored 50% and above.
In the 2014 NLA, the national mean score for all subjects in grade 12 was 45.52%. Only 13.9% of students in grade 12 were able to score 50% and above in physics, 37.6% in mathematics, and 36.3% in English. The consistent decline from the baseline years in terms of the national averages of most of the subjects and their composite mean score was another worrying trend of NLAs in Ethiopia.
However, few meaningful interventions have been made to correct the system. Camouflaged as ‘deserving candidates’, thousands of students who scored below the pass mark continued to be allowed to join tertiary institutions owing to a sector obsessed with meeting its expansion goals, regardless of the deterioration in quality brought about by the move.
The low percentage of students who passed the 2021-22 national exams carries various dire implications for students, institutions and the system as a whole.
Perhaps for the first time in the past two decades, public universities will be forced to admit significantly fewer freshman students than their available places. The planned national target for new admissions was expected to be between 130,000 and 150,000.
Since improvements in the area need sufficient time, there will be challenges confronting the government’s plan to raise the current Gross Enrolment ratio of 13% to 22% to respond to the country’s aspiration of joining the lower middle-income countries by 2025-30.
Hence, unless government finds a different mechanism, the national plan of preparing the necessary workforce, both in quality and quantity, will be seriously derailed.
If the pattern continues, working in a context in which institutions operate under their enrolment capacity could soon be an issue. Given the gender difference in performance in this year’s results, the efforts toward addressing equity at tertiary level, where some gains have been made, will be another issue of concern.
The fate of students who will not be able to join universities is another critical area which has wider socio-political implications.
As a one-time solution, the ministry plans to assign an undecided percentage of low-performing students to universities to receive remedial lessons in subjects in which they performed poorly. These students will be allowed to sit for an examination again to determine if they could be given another chance to continue their tertiary education based on their results and the slots available in universities.
Deteriorating student results also have implications for the participation of students in the private higher education sector which has, so far, been enrolling about 17% of tertiary students in its more than 350 institutions. More than 110,000 students were enrolled in private institutions in 2019 alone.
If significant improvements are not made, at least for some years to come, the private sector may no longer be able to keep its current level of participation and will have to readjust itself to the new reality.
One possible route for students who could not make it to tertiary level will be the less developed Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) sector, whose readiness to accommodate the thousands of students is questionable. The TVET sector’s capacity is still far below the requirements and standards set in the national TVET Strategy itself.
The government has created policies, strategies, structures and components emulating the experiences of countries that are successful in their TVET systems. However, despite limited improvements, the current readiness of TVET still falls short of attaining the existing policy goals.
Given its structural challenges and the limited funding it is currently receiving, it is unlikely for this sub-sector to accommodate the immediate needs of those who seek to attend tertiary education as a means to ensure employability.
The way forward
This year’s national examinations result has revealed the extent of the deterioration the Ethiopian system has experienced over the past three decades. The aforementioned implications and other related concerns indicate that the system is, indeed, at a crossroads.
Far beyond apportioning the blame, the reality should entice all stakeholders to collective awareness and the determination to fix longstanding problems. Such a resolve, if forthcoming, may be taken as a positive outcome of this year’s ‘bad news’ and a good starting point.
The ministry of education has announced its readiness to devise a national strategy to overturn the trend. Given the complexity and multilayered nature of the challenges, such a plan should not be exclusively relegated to a special group, but requires public discussions and nationwide participation from all stakeholders.
While the short-term implications of the drastically reduced number of students joining universities should be thoroughly explored, answers are needed as to how the future quantitative growth of the system can be properly aligned with its qualitative demands.
A new national plan requires revisiting past and future policy directions and strategies at all levels of the education strata, examining systems of governance, operations and accountability, deploying appropriate human, financial and material resources, galvanising the whole community for a common cause, and a genuine and long-term political commitment from the government to stop and reverse the downhill trend this year’s results have brought to light.
Wondwosen Tamrat (PhD) is an associate professor and founding president of St Mary’s University, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, a collaborating scholar of the Programme for Research on Private Higher Education at the State University of New York at Albany, United States, and coordinator of the private higher education sub-cluster of the Continental Education Strategy for Africa. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. This is a commentary.
This commentary was updated on 5 February 2023.