Thursday, June 9, 2011

National Exams: Beating Our Heads Against the Wall

You’re sitting in class, staring into space. The teacher is trying really hard to keep your attention but it’s just so confusing! You raise your hand to read off the board but as soon as you stand up you’re sorry you did. You have to sound out each word as you read it, stuttering on the first syllable. Your classmates start yelling the words at you and saying you can’t read. The teacher tells them to be quiet but now you’re sweating. Finally you make it through the sentence but you have no idea what it means. You sit down and start copying into your notebook. You’re 16 but you still have to concentrate on forming the letters. A lot of what you write is spelled wrong and you never go back to read it because it doesn’t make sense. When the teacher gives you homework, you copy from the smart kids because you can’t do it on your own. You don’t know why you passed all the other grades. Some of your friends slept with teachers but you never did. Somehow you always got a grade just high enough to pass.

You live far away but your parents arranged for you to live with a family near the school. You’re treated like a maid and have to do the cooking and cleaning and babysitting. It’s tough having so many chores and studying at the same time but you do your best. Sometimes you have to leave extra help sessions early to go cook dinner or take care of the kids and there’s not much time for homework or studying.

Teacher Clancy encouraged everyone to get a 14 or higher (out of 20) in the class. That’s the minimum grade to be exempt from the national exam. A lot of kids got to skip the national exam but you barely passed the class. Not surprisingly you failed the first round of national exams. It was so hard it seems impossible that you’ll pass the second round. You’ve been praying every night for a miracle. You go to extra help sessions every day. You’re so nervous that you don’t sleep well anymore. If you fail, your parents might make take you out of school. What would you do then?

This is an example of the struggle that many of my students are facing. When I get frustrated I try to look at things through their eyes. Their persistence in the face of such obstacles is amazing. It breaks my heart that many of them will fail but I cannot allow a student to pass if he or she can barely read and write, has no grasp of problem solving or even basic mathematics, and, as a result, is unable to learn the core concepts of Biology and Chemistry.

What pains me even more is knowing that the administration will change my students’ grades to allow them to pass anyway. I was beginning to see progress in my toughest students. I believe that if they repeat the grade they might have a chance to catch up and gain the confidence and basic skills they need to succeed. Instead, they will move onto the next grade unprepared, forced to sit through classes they don’t understand, feeling helpless and stupid.

Today I graded the second round of national Chemistry exams. Three out of thirteen passed. The other teachers I was working with told me that we’d have to “help out” the other students by giving them extra points. I explained that giving them points wasn’t helping them. They really needed to repeat the grade. They agreed with me that artificially passing students was just perpetuating the problem.

The curriculum itself is a huge problem. It combines 8th, 9th and 10th grade material into one intensive year. The result is an accelerated course that looks more like college than 8th grade. It is impossible to teach that much information even to well-prepared students. Some teachers compromise by “presenting” the material in a massive and incomprehensible flood of information. It’s rather like throwing spaghetti at a wall and hoping some of it sticks. I chose the alternate route of teaching only a fraction of the material in the curriculum but ensuring that most of my students actually learn it. I made my tests fair enough that a student who learned what I wanted him to learn could easily get a good grade.

The end result was that students with a good basic understanding of Chemistry and Biology passed my course with a high grade and were exempt from the national exam. Those who struggled and lacked basic knowledge and skills were forced to take it. It's not surprising that they all failed.

The national exam is horrible. If I were a kid faced with that exam I’d be crying every night. It tests the most minute details of an insanely over-packed curriculum. The good news for the students is that they only need an 8 out of 20 to pass. The bad news is that it’s so ridiculously hard that most of them couldn’t get above a 6.

What happens next? The administration of the school is faced with demands from the ministry of education. All that matters is statistics and if the minimum number of students doesn’t pass then ministry officials will conduct an investigation (i.e. an inquisition). When the students fail, the teachers are blamed. I experienced this firsthand after my students failed the first round of exams. I was called into a room with exam monitors who asked me to explain myself. I talked about the root challenges with under-prepared students and an over-packed curriculum but they didn’t want to hear it. The conversation shifted to “what did you do wrong as a teacher that caused your students to fail?” You can imagine how angry and frustrated I felt.

I have the luxury of being a volunteer but other teachers have their jobs on the line. The only course of action they see is to boost grades. The reality is that the administration and teachers are just as frustrated with the system as I am. They don’t want to change grades, but the hierarchy is so immutable and the bureaucracy so thick that they are essentially voiceless against decisions made from above.

I acknowledge that the same problem exists in American schools. There are students in our own country who graduate practically illiterate. Still, I count myself extremely lucky to have been educated in the USA. I feel like most of my teachers did their best to help me learn, my parents supported me throughout and the education system, for all its flaws, was a heck of a lot better than Mozambique!

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