Subordinating examinations to relevance: Impressions from Kenya

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    by John Oxenham


    Examinations are often seen as obstacles to the achievement of the higher goals of education and to making curricula relevant to the great majorities of pupils who enjoy only a basic education and who, in developing countries, are not likely to secure wage/salary employment. The expense of techniques which would both test and promote good education are sometimes thought to make them infeasible.

    However, the Kenya Examinations Unit (now Examinations Council) has been gradually making the exam for the Certificate of Primary Education subserve objectives beyond factual recall and the routine, abstract application of simple skills. 'Causal' facts, observation, discrimination, manipulation of data, reasoning, problem-solving are now given substantial emphasis. So also is knowledge useful to young people who will not be able to continue their schooling.

    Care is also taken to keep teachers informed of the changes. To, the usual array of training channels is added a Newsletter, which analyses questions and answers and advises on effective instructional approaches.


  • The menace of exams

    Examinations are the enemy of education. This has been the judgement of a long line of educators (e.g. Dore, 1976). The influence of exams is particularly pernicious, when they are used to select young people for further education and salaried employment. What they test monopolises instruction and learning; what they do not test is neglected, even discarded. Reflections of this truth are seen in two articles elsewhere in this volume. McNamara is careful to point out that the Secondary Schools Community Extension Project in Papua New Guinea scrupulously conforms to the Grade X examination. Lichtenstein notes that the Junior Certificate exam was altered to help ensure the acceptance of a new science curriculum in Swaziland. Even then, teachers so worried about the exam, that revising for it became their major complaint against the innovation. It is not surprising then that selective examinations are deemed among the chief obstacles to education relevant to that great majority of children who enjoy only primary education or less, or who are the scholastically less able (Sinclair and Lillis, 1980; Cooper, 1981).

    Even for the brighter children, however, exams bring distorted education. A large reason is perhaps the clash between the desirable and the feasible. The resources available to pay for exams cannot cope simultaneously with the pressure of rising numbers of candidates and the high expense of conscientious and compre- hensive examination techniques. Thc ensuing compromises have meant that even in 1981 many centralised exams rely overwhelmingly on paper and pencil tests and exclude most psychomotor attainments. Less necessarily, within the domain of paper and pencil they emphasise overwhelmingly factual recall, skills of routine application and 'unreal' problems. By default, they devalue the higher goals of comprehension, manipulating information,

    reasoning, problem solving, creativity (Little. 1981 a, b; Lewin, 1980).

    This is not to claim that the problems are either unrecognised or allowed to persist untackled. Indeed, the situation is quite to the contrary. Britain's throes at improving examinations are seemingly endless. India has a special unit in its National Council of Educational Research and Training devoted to examination reform. The overthrow of examinations was part of the Cultural Revolu- tion in China and their restoration is part of the post-Mao revolution. Tanzania is experi- menting with continuous assessment. The West African Examinations Council exhibits a gratifying flexibility in its anxiety to support 'relevant' education. The rest of this article will take a cursory look at one other example of attempts to make examinations promote the higher goals of education, namely the reforms in the Certificate of Primary Education (CPE) in Kenya.*

    A Case In Kenya

    The exam for the CPE is taken at the end of the 7-year primary school course. Its value as a terminal certificate is now almost nil, since even secondary school graduates face high probabilities of unemployment. However, it is critical as the selector for the government's secondary schools. As there are places for only about 10 per cent of the annual primary school graduates, ambitious young people have to score very well on the exam to be sure of one. Less successful pupils can enter the private l-Iarambee secondary schools, but these are considered, with much justification, a poor second best. Not unnaturally, the annual CPE fever is intense. To aid exam success, the bookshops display an abundance of 'crammers'. One publisher said that he sold some half million crammers annually and that his most successful author earned as many shillings in royalties. An analysis of the crammers' con-

    * Until August 1980 the examination for the CPE was conducted by the Examinations Section of the Ministry of Education. Secondary school examinations were the responsibility of the East African Examinations Council, which originally catered for Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, but in 1980 covered only Kenya and Uganda. In March 1980, the Kenyan Government formed its own National Examinations Council. which in August assumed responsibility for both primary and secondary examimnions. The substance of this article is drawn from publications of the Kenya Examinations Cotmcil. It also owes much to conversations with H. C. A. Somerset. until recently head of the Examinations Research and Dcvelopmcnt Unit. Any crrors, however, are my own.


  • tents shows that the authors believe that rote recall, routine application and standardised expression are the keys to success. In this, to judge by some of the mock exams devised by official educators, they arc at one with the teachers.

    However, over the past decade, changes have been gradually formed and introduced. Their tendency is to encourage teachers to make their instruction more relevant to life out of school by shaping the exam to emphasise cognitive skills generally useful out of school. It is as well as to note at once that the exam remains confined to pencil and paper and that most of it has to be in the multiple choice format. The exception is the English essay, which will be looked at presently. This means of course that the psycho-motor skills, creativity and problem-solving of the arts and crafts are omitted and by that token devalued as elements of education. This drawback notwithstanding, the CPE exam indicates what can be achieved even within the confines of

    paper and pencil, multiple-choice tests.

    The levers used by the reforms have been (1) the kind of fact emphasised, when factual recall is desirable, (2) questions which call for skills rather than knowledge and (3) communications with the teachers.


    Technical terms as facts have been heavily reduced. Students tend not to be directly asked, e.g. "What is a base? What is an acid?" Instead, definitions are given and the pupils are asked to apply them to a problem, as Question 61 from 1979 General paper illustrates:

    61. Substances which turn the juice from red hibiscus flowers green are called bases. Substances which turn the hibiscus juice pink are called acids. Ali tested different substances with the hibiscus juice and recorded his results in the following chart:

    lemon solution vinegar milk solution juice o/ ashes ol soap

    turns pink yes no yes no no

    lurns green no yes no no yes

    Using the chart, which one of the following conclusions is correct?

    A. Milk and soap solution are both acids.

    B. Soap solution is a base and lemon juice is an acid.

    C. Ashes solution and vinegar are both bases.

    D. Vinegar is an acid and lemon juice is a base.

    Clearly, what is being tested is not knowledge of terms but the ability to use information to judge inferences. The terms themselves are accorded their proper value, namely convenient classificatory labels. (Note also the use of a common local material, hibiscus juice, not imported litmus paper.)

    In history, the emphasis is shifted from facts of time or person - - when?, who?, - - to facts of cause m why? This approach will not obviate the rote memorisation of, say, the causes of World War I. On the other hand, it will support and promote the educational goal of encouraging pupils to seek relationships between and explanations of events and phenomena. Similar instances could be adduced from the science and geography sections.

    These two subjects also offer scope for testing facts from observation and experiment. For example, General paper question 43 enquired

    43. Atieno's class visited a small market in the countryside. Which one of the following groups of activities are they likely to have seen there?


  • A. Bicycle mending m Jiko making Furniture making

    B. Bicycle mending ~ Cement making Furniture making

    C. Soft drink bottling - - Cement making Furniture making

    D. Jiko making - - Soft drink bottling Bicycle mending

    Not only does this question favour rural candidates, it encourages teachers to take their pupils out of the school to observe what actually is there. It also allows the non-rural or even unobservant rural pupils to use their reasoning on what might be found at a small market.

    The Examinations Council also claims to test facts which will be 'terminally relevant', i.e. useful to the pupils who will not be selected for secondary school. The 1979 General Paper has at least 10 substantiations of the claim ( 11 per cent of the questions).

    Skills rather than knowledge Observing, discriminating, manipulating

    data and