From left: Kenya National Union of Teachers (KNUT) Nairobi Branch Chairman Nyamai Kasina, KNUT National Assistant Executive Alvans Washington, Presidential Working Party on Education Reform Chairperson Prof. Raphael Munavu and KNUT Nairobi Branch Secretary Macharia Mugwe confer with one another during public hearings on education reforms held at the University of Nairobi (UoN) Taifa Hall on November 11, 2022. 

| Francis Nderitu | Nation Media Group

How new KCSE exam grading system will see more join varsities

Candidates sitting the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) examinations are to benefit from a new grading system that reduces the number of compulsory subjects and focuses on those they are strong in.

This is likely to result in more students achieving better overall scores and qualifying for post-secondary education.

Candidates could see the benefits of the reforms as early as this year when they receive their results.

They will be graded on their performance in mathematics, English or Kiswahili and five other top-performing subjects.

This is a departure from the current system in which students are graded on seven subjects (English, Kiswahili, maths, two sciences and two others).

“They could be affected by the changes if we complete engagements with stakeholders, in this case secondary schools...instead of subjecting more than 900,000 students to a flawed system,” Kenya National Examinations Council (Knec) Chief Executive David Njeng’ere said.

“We will have a meeting on this later in September. The grading won’t affect candidates’ preparation for the examinations.”

“The change is one of the recommendations of the Presidential Working Party on Education Reforms (PWPER).

The Prof Raphael Munavu-led task force found that the current system is disadvantageous to some learners whose best subjects are not taken into account if they are not within the cluster.

The Ministry of Education has been given a year to come up with guidelines on the new KCSE examination grading system.

“It is worth noting that English and Kiswahili measure a learner’s level of literacy, while mathematics and sciences assess the numerical aspects,” the PWPER report says.

The number of candidates who pass with distinction (a mean of A or A-) has declined over the years, leading to what some education stakeholders say is wastage.

Only 25,331 Kenyans have obtained an average grade of A in the KCSE examinations since the first batch sat the tests 33 years ago.

Knec says the proportion of candidates passing with distinction was higher before the introduction of the 8-4-4 education system.

In the first KCSE examinations in 1989, only one candidate scored a mean grade of A. That was Naeem Samanakay of Alliance High School.

He had also been declared the best candidate in the first KCPE examinations in 1985, after which he was awarded a four-year scholarship by the Nation Media Group.

An online search shows that he went on to study medicine in Australia and is now a consultant paediatric surgeon and urologist.

Not a single candidate had a mean of A in the second KCSE examination while only two had the score in 1991.

The numbers have since shot up. Last year, for instance, some 1,146 candidates scored A.

The highest number of candidates with the grade was in 2013, 2014 and 2015, the days when cheating in national examinations was at its peak. Some 2,704, 3,042 and 2,657 students had the top grade respectively.

A comparison of performance at O-level in the 7-4-2-3 system between 1983 and 1986 shows that candidates who achieved Division III and above ranged from 37.13 to 48.88 per cent. Only 19.62 per cent of KCSE candidates scored C+ and above in the 2022 examination.

Dr Njeng’ere said the rigidity of the current grading system is partly to blame for the high stakes in KCSE, which leads to examination malpractices.

“The data tells us that our 8-4-4 grading system has a problem. We’ve been with that marking system for long. We’ve tried to massage it, but I’m glad that the PWPER has recommended that we look at it. Other countries don’t grade the way we do, so we’re going to look at that recommendation and come up with a proposal,” he said on the sidelines of the annual Association for Educational Assessment in Africa conference in Nairobi on Monday.

“Though we’re doing away with 8-4-4, we still have five cohorts who will sit the KCSE examination. We will be registering more than 900,000 candidates every year, so we’re talking about almost five million. Soon we’ll be convening a meeting with stakeholders to discuss revising the marking system.”

Dr Njeng’ere  said some children are good in mathematics and sciences but others have challenges.

“What is the need for one to be in school for 12 years when we can see that he or she is not strong in mathematics? What else can they do? How do we identify and develop talents?” he asked.

“We should not assess them on what they cannot do so that they can have a certificate that shows their strengths and weaknesses when they leave school. That will give them a direction for the future.”

Recently, Education Cabinet Secretary Ezekiel Machogu said Kenya has the lowest percentage of candidates achieving quality grades compared to her neighbours.

“The 2022 KCSE examinations recorded a quality pass rate of 19.62 per cent. For equivalent examinations, the pass rate for Uganda was 61.36 per cent; Tanzania had 36.95 per cent while Zambia had 69.31 per cent,” the minister said.

If the new grading increases the number of candidates with good grades, more will have a better chance of qualifying for university and college admission. Public and private universities are oversubscribed.

The move is also likely to revive Module II programmes to absorb students who miss out on government placement and funding.

Prime CS Musalia Mudavadi called for integrity in the setting, administration and marking of exams, saying governments rely on performance to make investments, policies, job placements, reviews and reforms.

“No other profession demands integrity, honesty and ethics like psychometricians, educators and researchers. Such rigorous demands for integrity are for the good of national and international interest. You are the professionals who determine the true abilities of every learner in our education systems,” he said.

Mr Machogu was represented at the conference by Basic Education Principal Secretary Belio Kipsang.

“I would like to urge Knec to use this opportunity of hosting the conference to examine the weakness of educational assessment in Kenya and Africa as a whole. This will enable us to find the right solutions to our challenges in assessing our learners,” said Dr Kipsang.