Tanzania Pupils Score Well in Recent Reports

Towards the end of 2011 the Southern and Eastern Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality released a number of reports comparing the results of tests and surveys performed several years ago. Tanzania’s primary students have performed well in the study comparing 14 countries in Southern and Eastern Africa. Two tests were given to pupils, one in reading (in the language of instruction) and the other in mathematics. In both tests Tanzania ranked third, behind the Seychelles and Mauritius in reading and Kenya and Mauritius in mathematics. This performance is especially good when one considers the fact that the Seychelles and Mauritius are island nations with much smaller populations and better economies. While I didn’t expect Tanzania to fare so well compared to other nations, some of the other findings of the report made the results even more surprising. For instance, the study found that Tanzanian pupils had the worst access to textbooks. The mean number of days a pupil is absent per month (2.1) was also amongst the highest of the nations in the study. The reading scores of Tanzanian teachers were also slightly below average. GDP per capita was towards the bottom.  Only 29% of Tanzanian classes had 40 pupils or fewer, while the mean across all nations in the study was 48%. Pupil to teacher ratio has risen from 47 (in 2000) to 56 (in 2007). It seems that the Tanzanian pupils have been managing to perform better with less resources than pupils from other nations. Part of the reason noted for Tanzania’s performance in reading is that the language of instruction is Swahili, which is at least used, if not the primary language, in most of the pupils’ households. Most of the other countries in the survey teach their pupils in English, despite the fact that the language is infrequently spoken outside of the classroom setting. The study’s results seemed to show a correlation between average reading scores and the percentage of students speaking the language of instruction at home. Being taught in a more familiar language probably helps the mathematics scores as well, as it would be easier for the pupils to understand the concepts if they know the language better. While the pupils in Tanzania performed well due to the use of Swahili in primary schools, when the students enter secondary school they struggle with the transition to English as the medium of instruction. The difficulty associated with switching languages is the reason why some people are pushing for using a single language for instruction throughout all levels of education, though there are advocates of using only Swahili (who say that it will foster better performance as shown in this study) as well as proponents of a switch to English in primary schools (by advocates who stress that English is necessary due to its prevalence in international business).

Form Two Exams Make a Return

In an article posted today in the Guardian, it has been reported that the Form Two National Exam is coming back.

I have very mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I see the dismal pass rate at Form IV the past couple years as a product of the removal of the Form Two exams. Without the exam weeding out unprepared students, Forms Three and Four were full of too many students who were not prepared and/or motivated to learn the more difficult material. In a rural school, this could be 75-80% of the students in those forms, making for a difficult learning environment for the remaining students who were ready to learn. Due to peer pressure, there are often excellent students who just drop off completely in Form Three, since they do not want to stand out.

While in theory, the re-introduction of the exam should ensure a more prepared Form III. This, combined with the new Form I entrance exam for basic literacy announced by the Ministry of Education, will definitely act as a filter for students who are capable. The problem is, cheating is so rampant, that many students will probably continue to get through. In recent years, with the increase of technology, cheating has gotten even worse. All it takes is one unscrupulous headmaster to release the exam papers ahead of the date and thousands of people across the country can be quickly relayed the exam questions by text message. With a pass mark of 30%, just a few questions can go a long way to getting a student to pass. The tests need to be taken seriously by students and teachers. Teachers need to invigilate the exam with proper diligence and reduce the incidence of cheating.

Finally, the fact that a large number of rural students will be failing their Form Two exams is really an indicator of a larger failure in the educational system. Way before they ever get to Secondary school, many of these students are already set up for failure by having a grossly inadequate primary education. It’s not that they do not have the capacity to learn the material, but that their foundation is so weak, they are totally lost in secondary school. The language shift from Swahili to English definitely does not help, but even Swahili scores are not as good as one would expect. More needs to be done to improve primary education to reduce the failure rates at secondary schools.


Another article about the reintroduction of the exams

Primary School Results, Cheating, and O-level Entrance Exams.

The Standard 7 results were recently reported in Tanzania.  The results were somewhat heartening, as the pass rate for the 983,545 pupils who took the exams, 58.28%, was an increased from the previous year by 4.76%.  There were noticeable improvements in Math, which increased from 24.70% to 39.36%, and English, which increased from 36.47% to 46.70%.
Not all of the news about the Standard 7 examinations was good though.  The Citizen also reported that cheating was a significant problem in its article Cheating Concerns As STD 7 Results Improve.  (This article was also the source of the statistics in the previous paragraph.)  According to the article, a total of 9,736 pupils had their examination results canceled because cheating had been detected.  While I’m not sure if people need to be worried about cheating being the start of a life of hardcore crime and illegal activities for the pupils, I believe the importance of the issue is correctly identified in the aforementioned article and Standard 7 Examinations Should be Tamper-Proof.
One of the most alarming aspects of the number of cheaters caught is its rapid increase, as an article from The Guardian reported that only 124 results were cancelled the previous year.  That said, cheating has always been a problem.  While in the Peace Corps I remember hearing stories from other volunteers of students who couldn’t even read Swahili passing the examination and joining secondary schools.  I never had a student that poor, but it was clear that cheating was a problem.  Teachers would often complain about certain primary schools where cheating was common, and some students indeed could barely write and were very unprepared for secondary school.
I remember in one incoming class 10 of the top 13 girls all came from the same school.  That alone seemed suspicious since we were accepting only 40 girls from at least two dozen primary schools.  The national examination results later on were even more telling.  The farthest any of the girls from that primary school went academically was finishing Form 4, and that was only one of those who joined the school.  The rest of the girls from that particular primary school failed to pass the Form 2 examinations.  Most of the other girls who I remember being ranked near the top of that incoming class are still studying.  One is in A-level while others are studying to become teachers or nurses.  Another girl from that class who wasn’t selected with the first 40 students, but halfway through the year during a second selection, is currently at the University of Dar es Salaam.  (It surprised me that some of the top students came from the second selection both times it was done – if the school hadn’t increased enrollment mid-year those students would have probably finished studying after primary school, instead of being in A-level, teaching colleges, and universities now.)  Perhaps all of the students completely changed their behavior after joining secondary school (as one of their classmates suggested) or the school produced good students who were simply unable to adjust to English being the medium of instruction/examination (though a couple of their male counterparts did quite well in secondary school), but it seems likely that at least some of the students received help to pass their examinations.
While announcing the results of the primary school examinations, the Deputy Minister of Education and Vocational Training, Phillipo Mulugo, stated that students joining secondary school next year will be required to pass an entrance examination  (Form One to do reading, writing qualifying exam).  This examination will verify the students ability to read, write, and count.
Apparently a number of education specialists in the country disapproved of the proposed test.  As mentioned in No to Form One reading, writing qualifying exams and Clarify on Reading and Writing Exam, govt told, a number of stakeholders felt that it would be redundant for the government to give two tests in order to join Form 1, some refuted the deputy minister’s statement claiming that some students were entering secondary school illiterate, and others called for a better environment in primary schools.  The result of this outcry seems to be that the entrance exam will not happen.
It’s my opinion that a qualifying exam could be beneficial.  I think there is a problem with unprepared students entering secondary school, and a qualifying examination could potentially help improve the situation.
I agree with the deputy minister’s claim that illiterate students are entering secondary schools, and not just because of anecdotes from my time in Tanzania.  In Are Our Children Learning, an annual assessment of the education system in Tanzania, Twaweza found that 1.99% of students in Form 1 were illiterate in Swahili, another 2.56% could only sound out letters, and 5.63% could say individual words, but not read sentences/paragraphs.  Only 86.96% of Form 1 students tested could read in Swahili at the level expected of a pupil who has finished Standard 2.  The results for English were even worse, with a full quarter of Form 1 students not achieving the level of proficiency expected of a Standard 2 pupil.
Part of the reason for the poor results at the Form 1 level (aside from high student-to-teacher ratios, under-qualified teachers, poor access to learning resources, teacher absenteeism, etc.) is most likely cheating.  If the Standard 7 National Examinations truly selected the most qualified students to continue on to O-level I would expect Twaweza to deem roughly 80% of Form 1 students to be fully proficient (since they found 40% of Standard 7 pupils were fully proficient and roughly half of primary school finishers continue on to secondary school).  Instead, only 65% of Form 1 students were found to be fully proficient.  A number of factors may be explain the difference: the examinations rely heavily on multiple choice and other question formats that will allow the occasional student to get lucky, the students tested by Twaweza might not precisely represent the student population of Tanzania (in terms of socio-economic background, rural/urban living, private/government schooling, and other factors that play into test results), etc.  But cheating is undoubtedly part of the reason as well.  It will be interesting to see if the results of next years study improves, given the increase in nullified exams (nearly 1% of those who sat!) this year.  Still, I tend to think that there are probably a significant number of people who cheated undetected.
If one accepts that under-qualified students are getting into secondary schools, then I believe that an entrance examination is a logical response.  While the number of secondary seats available in government secondary schools has increased impressively in the past decade, they are still not equal to the number of pupils who pass the Standard 7 examinations.  As reported in Cheating Concerns As STD 7 Results Improve, there are spots at government schools for only 90.1% of pupils who passed the examinations this year.  Given the finite number of youth who can continue on to secondary school, it makes sense to try to make sure that those who get the opportunity are the most capable.  Students poor at reading and writing in Swahili have essentially no chance at doing well in secondary school.  Even all the deficiencies at secondary schools were rectified teachers would still find it difficult to teach basic Swahili literacy skills to some students while preparing others for their national examinations in English.
It seems to me that an entrance examination for O-level has the potential to significantly improve the quality of students joining Form 1.  It wouldn’t eliminate cheating completely, there would still be cases where the wealthy or politically well-connected could bribe their children into schools, but I think that the school where the students will spend their next 4 years would be more rigorous at weeding out the worst students than the schools that produce them.  Furthermore, a second test could possibly help the government identify primary schools where cheating is more commonplace and allow them to put in place stricter safeguards during testing, punish the invigilators or head teachers, or take whatever action deemed appropriate to discourage cheating in the future.


[Editorial from The Citizen]

Education for girls should no longer be the subject of negotiation, especially in light of the fact that females comprise the greater part of the population. As far back as 2003, there were 98 males for every 100 females in Tanzania. There should be more girls than boys in school now, all things being equal.

Yet the evidence paints a different picture. According to the Tanzania Domestic Household Survey of last year, at least 93 per cent of girls from the wealthiest families got full primary education, but only 54 per cent from poorest families did so.

There may be a number of reasons for this yawning disparity, and we can only speculate on some of them. Whereas girls from the former category may be chauffeur-driven to school, the latter often have to walk or, if they are lucky, get on public transport.

The same ritual is repeated when school is over and they have to return home. All too often, there are many distractions for girls caught up in this situation. With this kind of rigmarole, it is small wonder that only half of the girls from poor families complete education in Tanzania’s primary schools.

This is neither fair nor moral. Indeed, such disparities feed class segregation in our society—with one Tanzania of educated children from rich families and another comprising uneducated children from poor families.

No meaningful education translates these days into meaningful life opportunities. This is the destiny of most girls. This is not the Tanzania we want. Since the dawn of independence, we have upheld the dream of a society in which every child has an equal opportunity in education. We have aspired to have a country in which no child is marginalised, regardless of family status.

We should leave no stone unturned in our efforts to erase such glaring differences among Tanzania’s children. There is a saying that educating a girl is educating an entire family. The benefits should be clear enough.

Peace Corps Volunteers Recognized in Tanzanian Newspaper

As former Peace Corps Volunteers in Tanzania, we’re always proud of what the current Peace Corps Volunteers are accomplishing there. Recently the work of two Peace Corps volunteers at a conference on pedagogical practices was highlighted in the Tanzanian newspaper, The Guardian. The volunteers, Aron Walker and Peter McDonough set up an exhibit showing how to equip a science laboratory with locally available materials. In a country where all science subjects (Physics, Chemistry, Biology) are mandatory for two years and the laboratory supplies are scarce (not to mention the funds to buy them or to build the physical laboratory building), teaching science effectively can be difficult. Being able to set up a laboratory in a cost-effective manner using local materials would help teachers be able to better capture students’ interest and increase their understanding through practical, hands-on explorations. Way to go Aron and Peter!

Click here for the full article from The Guardian