The tale of three shocks for educational reforms


(Associate Professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology)

The results of the 2014 E.C. 12th grade National exam, which was announced a few days ago by the Ministry of Education (MoE), has sent shockwaves across the country, and even to the world among those of us who care for the education of the country.

Only 3.3% of those who took the exam scored above 50%. Among the 2,959 regular high schools in the country, 1,161 schools, which amount to 39.2 % of the total, did not have a single student who scored above 50%. This fact has created a shock! It is unheard of and will have unprecedented impacts on the nation’s education system. It shows how this year’s result will be problematic for many exposing the status of the educational system in the country.

The Minister of Education Professor Birhanu Nega said the following while announcing the news: “This is a collective failure.” Yes, it is the failure of everyone without exception: policymakers, stakeholders, school owners and administrators, educators, teachers, parents and students. This piece tries to capitalize on this event and take the opportunity to call for a wide range of reforms by referring to two other shocks that created momentum for reform in education practices.

Germany’s PISA Shock

In the past two decades, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has studied the competency of 15-year-old students across member and non-member states. This is called PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment). OECD conducts this research regularly, every three years and the study aims to evaluate education systems worldwide by testing the skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students in participating countries/economies. PISA measures 15-year-olds’ ability in reading, mathematics, and science knowledge and skills to meet real-life challenges. The tests are designed to assess how well students, at the end of compulsory education, can apply their knowledge to real-life situations and can, therefore, fully participate in society.

Since the year 2000, over 77 countries have participated in PISA. In the 2000s PISA study, Germany was among the 31 nations participating, and its 15-year-old students scored lower than the OCED average in reading, science and mathematics. This created a shock across the country. It is called “PISA Shock.” The first results of the PISA were a wake-up call for Germany. It is good to understand the context very well.

Germany is the leading economy among the EU countries and it is among the top five in the world at the time. It is a major industrial nation that heavily relies on its experts. The PISA ranking of the students was as follows: reading 22, mathematics 21, and science 21. A country that depends highly on the knowledge and skills of its population cannot keep its dominance in technology and economy with such patterns of results.

The politicians, policymakers and the public took the call seriously. The poor performance stimulated a heated public debate and a strong policy response. The government reacted by doubling federal spending on education in the early 2000s. The country’s educational reform visioned to reduce the gap between children from advantaged and disadvantaged educational backgrounds.

The result of such investment can be seen in the following graph showing average test scores (source: As we can see from the figure, the students have scored above the OECD average in all three aspects: reading, mathematics and science since 2006. The doted lines are the OECD averages, while the bold lines are the averages of the Germany students.

The USA’s Sputnik Shock

Another event that triggered educational reform nationally in the USA is the so-called Sputnik Shock. On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union shocked the people in the USA by successfully launching the first earth-orbiting satellite, Sputnik. As one described, “its beeping signal from space galvanized the United States to enact reforms in science and engineering education so that the nation could regain the technological ground it appeared to have lost to its Soviet rival.” A year after Sputnik, in 1958, Congress passed the federal legislation called National Defense Education Act (NDEA), signed into law by Pres. D. D. Eisenhower on September 2, 1958.

That year, congress decided on a 1 Billion dollar spending package to bolster high-quality teaching and learning in science, mathematics, and foreign languages. Sixty-five years ago, this was a tremendous amount of money. The aim was to provide funding to improve American schools and to promote post-secondary education so that it could boost the ability of the USA to compete with the then-Soviet Union in the areas of science and technology.

A direct educational assessment did not cause sputnik shock. But it was an indirect one— the result of an excellent education system. Way before 1950, the USA was undergoing educational reforms; however, the ability of the Soviet Union to launch rocket technology that went a very far distance during the cold war time gave the impression that the Soviet technology was strong enough to launch nuclear bombs targeted at the United States.

Since then, science education has been taken seriously in America as a means of national security. Hence, the education reform was driven by scientists mainly, to the dismay of educationalists. This will take us to a deeper conversation about the essence of educational reform. For now, let us return to the current national shock created in Ethiopia due to the national exam results announced a few days ago.

Ethiopia’s 3.3 % Shock

Last year, the MoE decided to change the administration of the 12th grade exam. Students were taken to universities, away from their local high schools to take exams. This action by MoE highly reduced exam mishandling across the nation. Now, the result of the assessment has come out and it is shocking. Out of 896, 520 students only 3.3% can join universities.

Some people may say that this is not a shocking result given the pattern of the decline of the quality of the education system in the country in the past two decades or more. This is a shocking result for many at many levels. The Minister, Professor Birhanu Nega, has said that among 2,959 regular schools, only 1,798 had at least one student who scored above 50%. The other 1,161 high schools did not get at least one student scoring above 50%, which is the passing mark to join universities. Imagine what it means to all the students, teachers, education officials, and parents in these 1,161 high schools. Many are affected by this result. This event could have been sound statistically if 3.3% of the students had scored 90%.

However, we are talking about 96.7%, around 866, 935 students who did not manage to answer half of the questions presented to them in the exam correctly. This assessment result is against all statistical rules. Adding to the complexity, Ethiopian universities have the potential to accept 150, 000 freshman students at government universities and colleges and now they are getting below 20% of what they intended to get. Last year, they received 165 000, but this year it will admit only about 30,000 students, according to Dr. Samuel Kifle, Education State Minister. This has a massive implication for the coming years on the workloads of these universities.

According to Dr. Fantahun Mandefro, deputy minister of MoE, “we can see that the country’s educational system has encountered fundamental difficulties and hindrances; that is what we see behind these numbers.” Deeper study and analysis are deferred for another reflection, but let us briefly indicate the way forward.

Opportunity for Investing in Education

Assessment (formative or summative) is part of the educational system of a given country. Some scholars divide the curriculum into three groups: intended, implemented, and assessed.

The intended curriculum is “a set of formal documents which specify what the relevant national education authorities and society expect that students will learn at school….” It is decided by the policymakers, experts, and educators at the macro level of nations. The implemented curriculum is the one applied at schools inside classrooms (meso level).

The assessed curriculum refers to the different quizzes, tests, and other kinds of methods to measure students’ success (micro level). That is why it is also known as a tested curriculum. It includes regional and national levels exams; hence the national 12th-grade exam is part of the assessed curriculum. The failure of the assessed curriculum could imply failure at the implementation or even planning level. That is why many say this failure belongs to everyone at the macro, meso or micro level.

According to the Minister’s report, only seven schools pass all their students (100%) above 50%. These are Desse Special Boarding School, OD Oromia Special Boarding School, Kotebe Menelik Special Boarding School, BDU-STEM high school, Welaita Lika, University of Gondar Community School, and Lebawi International Academy (Privet). Six of them are public schools highly supported by the universities and the communities.

This is a piece of clear evidence that schools and students can perform well at that level if ample attention, budget, and resources (human and material) are allotted. This shows that the nation must prioritize education in the coming decades if we desire to see a meaningful change in the results of such national assessment.

More importantly, if we desire to see the nation progress in economy, technology, and science in the coming years, education should be prioritized. The leaders, politicians, policymakers, educationalists, teachers, parents, and all those stakeholders should come together and invest in it. Shocked by PISA findings, Germany and many developed nations acted swiftly; the USA did the same after Sputnik, resulting in high excellence and educational commitment. After this year’s national exam result, Ethiopia should act swiftly and vigorously in reforming the education system. For that, a substantial investment in the right direction is needed! This is a wake-up call for all!

 Editor’s Note: The views entertained in this article do not necessarily reflect the stance of The Ethiopian Herald


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