Four reasons why we need credible examinations in sub-Saharan Africa

Written on 14 Sep 17 by Moses Ngware


Something very commendable has happened in the education sector in Kenya: for the first time in years, the 2016 Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) results were credible.

After a decade of unreliable results, the Ministry of Education has proved to Kenyans that it is possible to set the record straight. Widespread organised cheating had long cast a shadow over examination results in Kenya. Such practices appeared hard to undo, and reforms introduced earlier in the year were met with student unrest—school facilities were even burned in protest, often at the hands of the cartels who had long facilitated cheating on examinations. 

The stringent measures introduced by the Ministry of Education to curb cheating and exam leakages included holding school principals accountable, secured the storage of exam materials, and centralised marking, among others. In the short term, the measures produced the desired outcome: credible results. Among other things, it led to a major drop in performance. For example, the percentage of students receiving a grade A dropped by 95 percent.

This higher level of examinations credibility needs to be sustained in the longer term, such that Kenyans recreate the moral fibre of their society, and develop the right technical expertise to drive the economy. But a more fundamental question must also be addressed: why does a country need credible national examinations in the first place? [1]

1. To know what students are learning

First, we need examinations to know how well students are learning in the education system—especially on national education goals, aims of the curriculum, and preparation for further learning and for life. Using a grade of C+ as the cut-off, only 15 percent of the 2016 Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) candidates in Kenya could demonstrate mastery of the subject content—hardly enough to fill Kenya’s universities, teacher training colleges, medical training college, technical training institutions, police, and military. And that is without even determining whether these graduates have attained some of our other national education goals, such as good citizenship. These credible examinations results tell us that we still have a lot of work to do if we are to educate young people who are prepared to meet our country’s social and economic needs.

2. To improve teaching and provide additional help

Second, national examinations should act as an assessment of areas of strength and weakness in particular students’ knowledge and skills. This is an important aspect for diagnosing learning competencies and the placement of students in the right career and/or academic tracks. But more importantly, these examinations can shed light on the effectiveness of teaching, and identify students who need remedial help.

According to data collected in Kenya by the African Population and Health Research Centre (APHRC), only 7 in every 10 primary school students are taught maths by a teacher who can demonstrate mastery of math concepts at a level of 40 percent or above [2][3][4]. Meaning, the other 3 out of 10 students are disadvantaged, as their teacher is highly challenged in numeracy. With a population of over 10 million primary school learners, this translates to over 3 million students being taught math by teachers who do not have adequate math skills themselves.

Primary school teachers’ mean scores on math contents and teaching knowledge in major urban centers in Kenya
Figure 1: Primary school teachers’ mean scores on math contents and teaching knowledge in major urban centers in Kenya - Data source: APHRC

As it stands now, we know that students who scored straight grade E on their graduation exams—and that was 6 in every 100—were struggling to progress within the system. They should have received earlier interventions if they were to demonstrate better acquisition of knowledge and skills. Almost 5 in every 10 students who scored a grade D or D- could be described as just barely hanging on. They have potential but it would appear that the school inputs and home environment were not successful in supporting them to acquire the required competencies. 

 It should be noted here that what the students demonstrated is an accumulation of learning, right from their pre-school and primary school education, where they acquire foundational knowledge and skills. It is too late to intervene after the graduation exams, and this is why diagnostic assessments should be done much earlier.  

3. To understand and address inequalities

Third, assessments can help us understand inequalities of learning outcomes by subgroups such as sex, geographical region and social class. It would be of grave concern to the public and the Ministry if, for example, the 51 percent of students receiving grade D or E belong primarily to certain geographical regions, or to high-poverty areas such as urban slums, or a particular social class, or even particular sex. It would call for an immediate targeted intervention to improve the quality of education for that group.

As more detailed results are received from the examining body, the inequality of learning outcomes as proxied by the KCSE results will unfold. For instance, we know that 57 percent of those who score grade C+ or above and therefore eligible to join university are girls.  This is commendable given that for a long time, girls have lagged behind on access to education opportunities, but if such an imbalance is left unaddressed for long or the gap widens, then there could be concerns about the quality of boys’ educational experiences.

4. To identify the factors that support student learning

Fourth, though more data may be required, examinations results could be used to interrogate which factors are associated with student learning. In the past, KCSE results have been mainly used to screen who goes to university, but this is short-sighted. APHRC research, also corroborated by other local and international research, show that examinations data can be matched with data on the quality of teaching, quality of learning materials, parental support, principal’s leadership style, student’s entry behaviour, and a host of other contextual issues, to identify the key determinants of student learning. [5] The 2016 KCPE results clearly indicate that some of these factors require closer scrutiny if students are to acquire the required competencies.

Patterns of KCSE performance, 2014 - 2016
Figure 2:  Patterns of KCSE performance, 2014 - 2016 - Data source: KCSE data from various secondary online sources; see

Furthermore, APHRC research also shows that low performing students are more likely to engage in anti-social and aggressive behaviour such as drug and substance use, bullying, and active participation in destructive activities in and outside school. [6] Other uses of the KCSE results could include whether the ministry’s standards are being met in the provision of education resources—for example, the student textbook ratio, which in some schools is at 5:1 instead of the required 1:1; laboratory equipment; the student-teacher ratio; and the teacher classroom ratio among others.

Examinations results, if credible, also tell us how student learning has changed over time. For now, it is hard to arrive at a conclusion on whether learning is improving simply by comparing the 2016 results with the sham results of yesteryears. However, if the 2017 exams follow the same process, it will be possible to make a better comparison and a sound conclusion on how to make progress in learning.

Lessons learned

There are lessons learned in the conduct of Kenya’s 2016 school examinations that could be relevant to other countries in sub-Saharan Africa. One effective dynamic was the multi-sectoral approach. Kenyans witnessed officials from other ministries, such as security and communications, joining their colleagues in the Ministry of Education to make the process a success. Such efforts could be extended to other areas where assessments are conducted, including the teacher training colleges, medical training colleges, technical institutions, and universities, where both anecdotal and administrative information show that cheating and exam leakages are equally rampant.

The other key lesson is that it is possible to reform the education sector and work towards attaining national education goals. The process of reforming the examinations has made the public optimistic that the Ministry of Education is serious about taking action, and is ready to effectively and efficiently run the education sector. In turn, the Ministry will need to rely on Kenyans of goodwill to succeed and overcome the remaining hurdles of cheating and corruption that are still standing in the way.

(The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of the institutions and sources cited.)

  1.  Kellaghan, T.; Greaney, V.; Murray, T. S.. 2009. Using the results of a national assessment of educational achievement. (National assessments of educational achievement; v. 5). Washington, DC: World Bank.
  2.  APHRC. 2009. KENYA - Classroom Observation Study: Quality of Teaching and Learning in Primary Schools in Kenya, Cross-sectional survey in 6 districts in Kenya. 
  3. Ngware, M. 2013. Moving from evidence to policy and action. Can teacher quality help improve learning outcomes in Kenya. Briefing paper. APHRC.
  4. Ngware, M. et al. 2013. Quality and access to education in urban informal settlements in Kenya. Nairobi: APHRC.
  5. Ngware, M. et al. 2016. The Quality of education in Uganda: the case of Igana and Mayuge districts. Nairobi: APHRC.
  6. Ngware, M. et al. 2016. "Moderated effects of risky behavior on academic performance among adolescent girls living in urban slums of Kenya". In: Cogent Education, 3(1), 1234989.


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