Tanzania’s pass/fail roller coaster

A primary school teacher answering questions in her class. Picture: Neema Kambona/DFID
A primary school teacher answering questions in her class. Picture: Neema Kambona/DFID

You know that heart stopping feeling when you crest the first peak of a big roller coaster as it goes into free fall? That feeling of dread is perhaps only equalled by the torture of opening up your exam results - at the time it seems your whole life might depend on the hidden grades inside!

In the UK last year, GCSE (Grade 10 for 16 year olds) pass rates finally were reported as having ‘dropped’ for the first time ever by an 'under whelming' half of one percentage point, reversing a decades long upward trend. Many have commented that exams, and increasingly interwoven coursework, have become easier to pass - 'grade inflation' - potentially to allow more students to enter tertiary education. There were howls of protest and legal challenges this year over how the pass mark for English GCSEs were being adjusted and its effect on grades and students' career prospects.

Over the Christmas holidays, Tanzanians were shocked and bemused to receive the outcomes of the Primary School Leaving Examinations (PSLE) taken by students around 14-15 years old in age and are usually considered necessary to enter secondary school. National pass rates (grades A-C) were reported as having plummeted from 57% in 2011 to 30% in 2012, that’s almost halved - not one half of a percentage point drop. It was reported that in two rural Western regions that 48 schools had no students pass at all. However, not all failing students face ruin. It appears that entry requirements into secondary school will be relaxed, as the government continues to expand access to secondary education (enrolment rates have tripled since 2005).

Secondary school enrolment since 2000

Exam results can be used for different purposes to filter out students for a limited intake into more advanced levels of education or as an absolute measure of competences. Major changes in pass rates are not that unusual if one looks at Tanzanian results in past years, but this one does seem unexpectedly large and has left many people scratching their heads for solutions. If failing students are being sent en masse to secondary schools, is the problem merely being shunted up the system?

Did the switch to automated marking of multiple choice questions cause confusion or did it prevent cheating? For an exam taken by close to a million students the benefits of automation are clear, in previous years teacher training colleges stopped lessons for weeks as trainee teachers were co-opted in for marking by hand. Were the questions or curriculum made harder, or the grade boundaries adjusted? If you have any ideas please let me know; we are also discussing with government colleagues for possible explanations.

MDG 2: Achieve Universal Primary Education

Over the past decade the emphasis in developing countries has evolved from education expansion - 'bums on seats' in pursuit of the MDG 2 on access - to all children learning at school (or elsewhere).  Clearly examination pass rates are one measure of learning; as posted earlier, other approaches such as civil society led testing of children on basic literacy and numeracy skills now provide useful alternative measures that demonstrate disturbingly low levels of ability in children in Africa and South Asia. We face a real challenge to determine how best to support Tanzania's children to learn. Primary School Leaving Exam (PSLE) pass rates are one of the key indicators agreed to measure progress between the UK, other development partners and government, but in this instance it appears our tape measure or stopwatch may have malfunctioned!


  1. Mtega

    Or perhaps your tape measure worked properly for the first time?

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  2. Fausta

    It would be helpful to know the sources of some of your data. I am particularly interested in the reference to a pass rate of 30% in 2012 and 57% in 2011 as this kind of data is not available on the Ministry of Education website. I for instance have been told that the 2012 passrate is 47% and my source claims to refer to the Ministry press statement. Unfortunately, I can't seem to find this on the internet though.

    In essence though, I do agree that there is a problem that needs solving here.

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  3. Jef Gooding

    This is hilarious. Over here in England for many years it has been considered sacrilege to suggest exams might be getting easier to pass.

    In the 80s and early 90s any display of the Union Jack was opening the door to an accusation of racism. Morrissey was vilified at Finsbury Park in 1992 for unfurling a flag - but strangely Blur and the rest of the Britpop crew had no such censure a few years later.

    A similar (educational) thought police have up till now attempted to close any discussion about (or challenge to) the ludicrous concept of continually improving pass rates. They have done this with the banal implication that the mere suggestion is, de facto, a denigration of students' efforts (or more perniciously an individual with such a view must be reactionary or right wing). Finally, when some limited action is taken (before 99% receive an A pass and even the emperor realises he is naked) teachers and academics start bleating and whinging about a paltry 0.5% drop.

    This article is instructive of the need for educationalists in England to start engaging their brains, develop their basic understanding of statistics (and common sense) and have some humility and perspective about the "difficulties" they have to contend with.

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  4. A post-2015 youth perspective: It’s make-or-break time for education | Education for All Blog

    [...] More than 56 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa aged 15-24 have not completed primary school. In Tanzania, of 48 schools assessed, not even a single student could pass the primary school [...]

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  5. Alex W

    @Jef Gooding - Calm down, this is a DFID blog with a brief mention of the British system as a semi-light-hearted comparison.

    The NGO Uwezo studied the Tanzanian education system recently with a bottom-up study of the 'actual' standard of kids' level of knowledge rather than from the macro MDG/government perspective on learning outcomes if anyone wants a different perspective

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  6. Jef Gooding

    Fair comment Alex. Reading it back now, it does seem like a bit of a rant. As a teacher in England myself I feel qualified to criticise teachers and the article just brought home to me how lucky (relatively) we are over here. Wrong forum probably for my comments. Apologies for any offence caused.

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  7. A post-2015 youth perspective: It’s make-or-break time for education | Development Central

    [...] More than 56 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa aged 15-24 have not completed primary school. In Tanzania, of 48 schools assessed, not even a single student could pass the primary school [...]

    Link to this comment Reply

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