Every headteacher dreads this correspondence: “Dear head teacher. It has been noted with great concern that the school registered a negative deviation (in KCPE/KCSE) for the past three years.... Show cause why disciplinary action should not be taken against you for poor performance.”
The direct messaging places the school heads in a defensive position. Despite the school’s potential success in other learning areas, society prioritises performance in national exams. The focus is often on pass rates, which students are selected to join the ‘best schools’, selection criteria and the exam’s impact on a student’s educational trajectory.
The influence of exams on instructional practice is equally important but often overlooked. High-stakes testing is extensively used in several countries to evaluate student performance, teacher effectiveness and school and education system accountability. Its significant consequences include student’s advancement or eligibility for programmes or opportunities. The test results can mainly impact the examinee’s academic or professional prospects.
Exemplified by the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) and Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) exams, its key advantage of high-stakes testing is the potential to increase student achievement and learning motivation. Basing students’ performance on a test can have them work harder. Similarly, when test scores are tied to school funding or teacher evaluations, educators are likely to work to improve student learning outcomes.
But they can have unintended consequences. The pressure to register high scores can be overwhelming, negatively affecting teachers’ motivation and enthusiasm for the job. Their weaknesses are magnified and worth solely judged based on test performance. This narrow focus on scores overlooks the multifaceted nature of effective teaching and needs to consider student’s diverse needs and abilities.
Kenya is a testing ground for transitioning from a high-stakes exam system to a competency-based assessment (CBA) model. Unlike the KCPE and KCSE, which involve one-off tests after eight- and four years, respectively, CBA is systematic and continuous. It involves gathering information from multiple sources for informed decisions about learners’ knowledge, learning needs, acquired knowledge and abilities.
Teachers develop assessment tools and administer them continuously. The Kenya National Examinations Council (Knec) develops the assessment tools at the school level while teachers administer the tests from Grades 4-12. Finally, at the national level, Knec develops summative assessment tools and administers them in G6, 9 and 12.
The school-level assessments in upper primary school (G4, 5, and 6) contribute 60 per cent to the overall Kenya Primary School Education Assessment at G6. Teachers should use the continuous assessment results to inform how they teach, emphasizing improving learning rather than categorising learners in terms of their performance.
But it is unclear whether teachers are implementing this motive, especially as CBA also retains aspects of high-stakes testing in G6, 9 and 12. Furthermore, teachers are well versed in examining and preparing students to pass high-stakes exams and this instinct is unlikely to disappear overnight.
Dr Karisa (@kilichobaki) and Dr Ngware (@mngware) are research scientists at African Population and Health Research Center. Dr Rossiter (@jrossiter) is a policy fellow at Center for Global Development.