Problems on hold
As though Egypt were not facing enough challenges as things stand! What with the enormous efforts directed at rebuilding a State that was left in tatters in the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring and subsequent Islamist rule which Egyptians brought down in 2013, as well as confronting terrorism and internal and external conspiracies against the country, no one needed the recent Thanawiya Amma scandal to add to the woes. Thanawiya Amma is the nationwide secondary school certificate which qualifies students to enter either university or the job market; the wide majority of students, however, prefer to enrol in universities. Some 600,000 students are sitting for the exams this year but, with places in university much less than the number of Thanawiya Amma students, it is inevitable that competition to score in the examinations is fierce. Despite huge efforts by the Ministry of Education (MOE) to counter it, cheating in the exams has become an increasingly rampant evil.
This year, the test paper and the model answers for the Thanawiya Amma Muslim Religion exam were leaked and posted online the first day of the exams. The MOE cancelled the Religion test and rescheduled it, and started investigations on possible leaks within the ministry. The leak left public opinion, the media, education experts and professionals in shock. One more pain to add to Egypt’s woes!
I could not help recalling a much older incident of Thanawiya Amma finals leak that took place in 1960 and was only discovered after the exams were over. The government cancelled the exams and held new ones; students had to re-sit all their tests. But what worked more than half a century ago is near impossible today. The number of Thanawiya Amma students then is nothing to compare with the massive current numbers, and modern-day technology comes in handy in cheating practices. True, the police have tracked down and caught the criminals who leaked this year’s exam and who are now being brought to justice, but the real issue is how to put an end to the rampant phenomenal cheating.
It must be admitted that Egypt’s current education and evaluation system lends itself readily to cheating. This is not to say that no serious efforts are being exerted towards developing all aspects of the education process, from curricula to teachers to education methods. The MOE also recently announced it is currently studying how to upgrade the examination system as of next year, but the minister gave no hint of the scope of the planned upgrade. We must acknowledge that the rote learning system that still thrives in Egypt has become totally outdated; it turns students into information recording devices that temporarily store knowledge without any interest or creativity, merely to reproduce this knowledge in the final exam then forget all about it. This system, in addition to the fierce competition, places a heavy burden on the students; those who cannot cope find themselves in the desperate situation where cheating appears to be the easy way out. So how can we cut the road before such an evil practice?
First, examiners should avoid putting test questions that require stereotyped answers memorised straight out of textbooks or notes. Questions have to fulfil the purpose of testing the knowledge and understanding of students, and sorting out those who fully grasp what they have been taught from those who merely scratched the surface. I remember some 25 years ago a British education expert was on a visit to Egypt to inspect schools that taught the British curriculum. He told students that exams seek to test the understanding and creativity of students, and that high marks can only be attained by the creative diligent ones; others who could do no more that insert some stereotypical ready-made answer manage no further than fair marks.
Second, we have to recognise that, worldwide, students are no longer evaluated through exam questions that need long, extensive answers on test sheets. These have been widely replaced by multiple choice questions which target a student’s grasp of the topic. Such questions also help reduce the drain and fear of the exam.
Third, the fact that Thanawiya Amma exams are a do-or-die process serves to distress countless students and their families, placing them under intolerable stress to successfully make it through this critical education phase. It would be more reasonable that students would not be evaluated according to final tests alone; a student’s attendance, score in regular all-year-round tests, and various scholastic achievements over the school year must be included in the evaluation process. This approach would ensure that the effort made by a student throughout the school year is not discounted, and that the exam is not turned into a sword of Damocles hanging over his or her head.
Last, why are Thanawiya Amma exams a source of intolerable stress for students, families, or officials? Why do we insist on holding unified nationwide exams that leave us in an insufferable situation if the security system of the exam is broken or if anything unusual occurs to block or postpone an exam? Is the MOE incapable of coming up with more than one test for the same topic, all of which would be equivalent as evaluation tools, to be used separately in the various governorates or regions in Egypt? Why do we insist on maintaining Thanawiya Amma exams as the bottleneck so daunting to pass through? If only it were a bottle neck! For some it has become a needle hole.
19 June 2016