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).
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.
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!