With more work, exit exam may become quality building block
The Ethiopian Ministry of Education has announced this year’s national university exit exam results after 12 months of painstaking efforts towards implementing the plan across the nation’s public and private higher education institutions.
The ministry’s introduction of a national exit exam has long been regarded as one of its initiatives to improve the education system’s gradually deteriorating quality.
The 2018 Education Development Roadmap, for instance, suggests the scheme as one possible route the ministry needed to adopt to turn around a failing system.
Although presented as a new initiative, the scheme is more of a continuation of similar earlier practices that began in the field of Law in 2010-11, and, since 2015, as a national licensing examination for graduates in health sciences.
However, unlike in the past, this year’s national exam was administered upon completion of all undergraduate programmes, both in the public and private higher education institutions.
Achievements and gaps
A total of 240,000 students from 48 public and 171 private higher education institutions enrolled in 205 different disciplines were expected to take this year’s exit exams.
However, 194,239 students registered and only 150,184 students from 44 public and 161 private higher education institutions across the country actually wrote the exams.
They took place during a week starting from 7 July, at 82 dedicated examination centres located at public universities throughout the country.
The results issued by the ministry of education indicated that only 40.65% of all students who took the exam passed with a score of 50% and above. This means only 61,054 candidates will graduate in the 2022-23 academic year, after fulfilling the national requirements set by the ministry.
While students in the public sector accounted for an average performance of 65%, only 17.23% of students in the private sector were able to pass.
It can be seen that the performance of the private higher education institutions’ students has substantially contributed to the low performance rate at a national level. This is despite the fact that there are some of these institutions that managed to perform well.
Given the experiences in the law and health sciences exams, the difference in the achievement between the two sectors appears unsurprising.
It may be attributed to several factors, chief among them is the type of students enrolled in public and private institutions.
It is often the case that the best achievers in their high school exams join public institutions for several reasons, including these institutions’ reputation and affordability.
Although the national performance of 40.65% is still low and leaves much to be desired, it is higher than the achievements witnessed in the initial years following the introduction of similar exams in law and health science.
Irregularities and inconveniences
The release of the exit exam results has been accompanied by a variety of complaints from students and institutions alike.
The exam results for private institutions were delayed for a few days compared to the public sector students for whom results were posted – as promised.
Some students who scored 50% but failed, according to the system, also lodged complaints with the ministry.
While both of these issues were quickly addressed, a complaint about the low performance of students in the accounting and finance programme is still a lingering issue that some students and institutions are not happy with.
The national results show that students in this programme are the worst achievers both in the public and private institutions, with very few institutions managing pass rates of 50% and above.
This, in itself, should be enough reason to complain about the unfairness and alleged deficiency of the evaluation.
In addition, a variety of reasons such as failures in using the correct blueprint, poor representation of competency areas identified for the programme and poor construction of test items, that took more than the required time, have been raised as major gaps.
The gravity of the problem is, perhaps, indicated by the fact that the majority of school deans of the public universities and the private higher education institutions’ association have lodged their formal complaints at the ministry.
Among others, the ministry is expected to be transparent about the process and the content of the exam by openly publishing the exam questions to avoid further differences and wrangling on the issue.
Far beyond solving complaints, addressing the issue may have implications, not only for students who failed and would be barred from employment, but also in convincing institutions that still think that the exam results do not fairly represent the capacity and efforts of their students.
Exit exams and the quality issue
There is a strong belief on the part of the ministry that the introduction of exit exams will improve the quality of education provided by institutions.
Using individual scores as a final institutional quality indicator may be too simplistic in a system that continues to be entangled by many longstanding and complex challenges.
In this regard, one will be tempted to think about the limited quality improvements seen in law and health science fields – despite the fact that student scores have improved over the years.
However, there is no denying that the urge to pass the national exam is expected to encourage institutions to improve their performance.
The national exit exam requirements stipulate that degrees will not be issued to students who fail to score 50%. This gatekeeping role to a paid job may encourage students to perform better.
Hence, aside from further investigating the factors that contributed to the success or failure of this year’s examinees and the system put in place, the role of the exit exam in the broader efforts to improve the quality of education in the higher education sector should be a matter of concern.
Despite the encouraging moves many institutions and students have made towards passing the national exams, there are some worrying signs of compromises on institutional quality and standards, triggered by an excessive focus on exit exams.
A typical example is the decision by many institutions to abandon or compromise previous requirements set for tasks, such as final-year thesis writing, which students need to undertake toward the completion of their studies.
Another concern is the fact that the design and format of the paper and pencil exam focus more on testing knowledge as compared to other important competency areas the job market demands.
In some systems, such deficiencies are addressed by giving the responsibility of administering exit exams to professional associations that have the capacity to assess all competency areas of graduate curricula, rather than education ministries that may not have such capacities.
One of the lessons from this year’s national exam is the need to weigh the disadvantages of focusing excessively on preparing students for the exam as compared to meeting the broader objectives of why the exam was designed in the first place.
The way forward
The introduction of the national exit exam has created a variety of opportunities for self-reflection and improved performance at national, institutional and individual levels.
This encouraging move needs to be supplemented by successive efforts aimed at learning from initial challenges, building the credibility of the exam, and enhancing the contribution of the scheme towards improving the quality of education provided at public and private higher education institutions in Ethiopia.
However, as I have argued previously, far beyond making use of a single scheme, turning around the current challenges of the higher education sector requires addressing the multifaceted dilemmas or difficulties the system has been facing for decades in a more organised, coordinated and collaborative manner.
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.