Mass failure in national exam calls for urgent intervention

Only 3.2% or 27,267 of the 845,099 students who wrote Ethiopia’s 2023 national school-leaving examination from July to August 2023 achieved the required 50% to qualify for tertiary education, the ministry of education recently announced.

Like last year, the 2023 results have revealed weaknesses across the education system, which used to allow hundreds of thousands of students to join universities without achieving the aforementioned pass mark.

The ministry started enforcing the 50% pass mark for all students in 2022. It also started offering the exam at public universities in a bid to prevent rampant exam cheating.

Aside from the political, societal and institutional implications, the results have been vehemently criticised for dashing the hopes of the thousands of young people who aspire to pursue tertiary education.

Shocking figures

The 2023 pass rate of 3.2% comes close to the 2022 figure, when the number of students who passed the exam was 30,034 or 3.3% of the 896,520 students who sat for the 12th grade national exam.

Of the 3,106 regular schools that took exams in 2023, 1,778 (57.2%) managed to pass one or more students, but in 1,328 schools (43%) not a single student managed to score 50% or higher.

Among the best-achieving 10 schools at national level, only five schools passed all their students, while another five schools managed to pass 95% of their students.

Eight out of the 10 top-achieving schools at a national level have been set up and are managed by public universities and regional governments. Seven of these schools are boarding schools.

They are significantly different from other regular schools in terms of their selection of students for admission and the resources they have. Two private schools, located in Addis Ababa, were also included on the list of the 10 best-performing schools.

At an individual level, this year’s top result was a score of 649 out of 700 achieved by a female student in natural science and 533 out of 600 by a male student in the social science stream. However, the average national score for each subject was below 50%.

The national average score for all subjects, out of 100 is 28.63; the average score for male students is 29.55 and the figure for female students is 27.64, indicating that males performed slightly better than females.

With the average score of 29.98, students in the natural science stream performed better than that of the social science stream with an average of 27.68.

With regard to specific subjects, the highest mark was recorded in chemistry with a 30.99 average, followed by various subjects such as biology 29.93, maths for natural science 28.48, geography 28.03, English 27.92, history 27.07, physics 26.49, maths for social science 25.62.

The ministry’s only positive development is its success in reducing cheating. According to the ministry, the number of students involved in illegal acts this year has come down to 859 from last year’s figure of 20,170 cases.

Dire implications

The national results are a clear indication of the huge challenges the system is experiencing, despite the resources devoted to it and nationwide aspirations to produce qualified graduates.

The results of the past two years continue to defy the education sector’s plans of promoting access to quality education with no indication of how this challenge will be tackled now and in the years to come.

Far beyond restricting individual opportunities and dampening the prospects of families, the result carries wider implications in terms of forcing public universities to operate far below the huge capacities they have developed to accommodate the increasing number of students over the past two decades.

One of the ministry’s tentative mechanisms to address this challenge is to reconsider its 2022 decision and give an additional chance for a selected portion of students to pass through a remedial programme – as was the case last year.

The remedial programme is expected to last for months, after which students will be allowed to join universities only if they score 50% or above in their classroom assessment and another nationally administered final exam.

This would mean that many public and private universities will undertake remedial classes based on high school content rather than exclusively discharging their responsibilities and resources towards providing higher education.

Societal reactions

Despite the negative impact of last year’s poor pass rate, Ethiopian society was positive toward the new directions of the ministry, which was praised for enforcing its pass mark requirements and for its determination to control cheating practices hoping that this would trigger meaningful changes across the sector.

However, a shift has taken place in the societal reaction. Some have started pointing fingers at the ministry and have demanded that efforts be made to improve the system rather than to publicly declare the annual results and expect changes to take place on their own.

The fact that the results of the past two years is an outcome of decades of system failure is clear to many, but they argue that this cannot continue to be the only excuse for failing to record improved results. In fact, the ministry is being challenged to disclose its intervention strategies and the efforts it is making to reverse the trend.

In an article I wrote last year, I indicated that the system is at a crossroads and argued the need for a new national intervention plan that would help the sector address the challenges in a more systematic manner.

In particular, I suggested the need for such a plan to involve key areas of intervention such as galvanising the whole community for a common cause, 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 and a genuine and long-term political commitment from the government to stop and reverse the downhill trend last year’s results have revealed.

Last year, many received the ministry’s announcement of its readiness to devise a national strategy to overturn the trend positively. However, little appears to have been achieved in this regard.

Notwithstanding the lack of clarity on how long the national crisis may continue and what the mechanisms are for solving the conundrum, the ministry’s perceived lack of action must be one of the reasons why many are criticising it, unlike last year when it was hailed for its bold moves.

The ministry’s responsibilities

The shocking results of the past two years will continue to haunt the nation until both the system and students’ results improve significantly.

This will demand that the ministry take a vanguard role. However, success in this area equally requires the active participation of all members of society and the government at large.

Equally important is the need for the ministry to examine the current system and plans, in particular flagship projects that were designed to bring about change but have failed to do so.

An example to consider is the General Education Quality Improvement Program (GEQIP) which was formulated as far back as 2006 and has been implemented as a package since 2008.

Over the past 15 years, GEQIP has appeared in different forms and phases as GEQIP-I (2008-13), GEQIP-II (2013-18) and GEQIP-E (2018-), an independent programme based on the achievements during phases one and two of the GEQIP programme.

The six major pillars (called programmes), identified for focus in GEQIP, are the key areas that would address the many challenges the system has been experiencing, including improvement in student achievements.

They include the curriculum, textbooks, assessments, examinations and inspections; teacher development programmes; school improvement plans; management and capacity-building, including education management information systems; improving the quality of learning and teaching in secondary schools and universities through the use of information and communications technology, programme coordination, monitoring and evaluation; and communication.

Despite the importance of these critical areas of intervention, the outcomes of each of the three GEQUIP projects and their contribution towards improving the system are not clear.

There may be many other projects, activities and plans that the ministry has been engaged in for years – with no tangible impact in improving student achievement.

Among others, the fact that the majority of high school leavers are failing to score 50% or higher in the national exam reveals serious gaps in the implementation of these initiatives – despite the huge local and foreign resources dedicated to the projects.

Given the complexity and urgency of the matter, the ministry should hasten to respond, and, with the participation of other stakeholders, address current challenges and the growing societal dissatisfaction that demands improvement, no matter the cost.

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 or This is a commentary.