By Faith Barbara Namagembe at 2012 EAT on Wednesday 8th March 2023.
The number of candidates who cannot score one mark in a subject is on the rise at the advanced level, the national examinations body, Uneb, has said.
At the Advanced level, Uneb, expects candidates to handle complex tasks that require description, explanation, analysis and evaluation. To Uneb’s surprise, a sizable number of candidates are not meeting those core standards.
“We are wondering why, after two years, you find candidates who cannot even score one mark in a subject that they took as a specialty. One of those candidates decided to just copy out questions several times in one of the papers,” Uneb executive director Dan Odongo said while announcing the results of the 2022 Uganda Advanced Certificate of Education (UACE). He was dismayed by the zero scores on many papers.
He added: “Another candidate wrote on page two of the paper that I saw: “Dear Mr Examiner. You are still wasting time on me when there are more serious candidates?” After writing this question, the candidate added: “Now listen to my story.” He then wrote a short poem, starting with “I am the stone the builder refused….”
Odongo said this male candidate went on to list names and songs of some famous musicians such as Celine Dion and Mariah Carey.
“The question we are asking is that, apart from scoring zeroes, could this performance indicate an underlying problem?” he asked.
The UACE examination generally builds on the knowledge and skills assessed at the Uganda Certificate of Education (O-level). The questions are designed to test candidates’ ability to comprehend and apply knowledge in new situations; demonstrate logical reasoning skills, perform scientific experiments, interpret results and draw relevant conclusions.
At least 97,890 candidates from 1,969 centers registered for the examination that was conducted between November 21 and December 9, 2022, compared to 98,392 candidates from 1,952 centers in 2020.
Of that total, only 96,557 candidates appeared for the examination compared to 97,443 in 2020 – representing a decrease of 878 candidates. About 40,713 were female.
The results showed a high percentage of candidates (99.2%) qualified for the UACE award, the same percentage for 2020. At the minimum, two principal passes are required for university admission, and 67,815 candidates qualified. However, this number is slightly less than that of 2020 of about 68,013 candidates. For other tertiary institutions where one principal pass and two subsidiary passes are considered, 86,197 will be admitted.
Female candidates proportionally performed better than males at all levels and showed a lower failure rate. Even at individual large entry-level subject levels, females showed better performance, especially in humanities, mathematics, and physics. Males did better in agriculture, chemistry, biology, general paper, and fine arts.
According to Odongo, the performance of candidates at lower levels was undermined by misunderstanding of questions, and the inability to describe, explain, interpret and offer logical arguments, illustrations and specific examples to qualify their answers.
“Better answers were seen in parts of questions that were more direct. Some candidates use mnemonics [when someone selects the first key letters in a phrase and combines them]. Eventually, each of the first letters in a phrase helps them to recall some things],” he said.
In the sciences, evidence of theoretical teaching, which was also highlighted at UCE, was still ongoing, with little practical experience given to the candidates as observed at many centers. As a result, candidates who performed poorly showed an inability to follow instructions and procedures during the practical examinations and failed to accurately record data or even make meaning of any of the data recorded.
Odongo said some candidates had difficulty writing the language of chemistry by using the correct chemical symbols and balanced equations.
TEACHERS TAKE THE BLAME
Whereas the skill of dissection is essential in biology, some candidates did not carry out this task on the specimens provided as required by the questions but instead presented textbook drawings.
The invigilators reported that all specimens provided to some candidates were left intact, which meant that they memorized drawings from textbooks and reproduced them. This, according to Odongo, may indicate that the teachers in the schools where this happened may not have exposed the candidates to this skill.
Teachers are overly blamed for the low performance of candidates, especially in the sciences. The science teachers interviewed for this story partly agreed with the board this time.
The general secretary of the Uganda Professional Science Teachers Union, Aron Mugaiga, said most of the zero scores are reflected in science subjects and practicals due to lack of laboratories and supplies in schools. For subjects like biology with dismal performance, he said, it’s too expensive to teach and requires a dedicated school to support students before final examinations.
“The biological specimens alone are perishables. For instance, if you are to dissect a rat in a normal classroom lesson, it costs Shs 15,000, yet each student needs one rat per lesson. During Uneb examinations, the same rat costs Shs 30,000 due to the increasing demand for that particular specimen across schools. The fact that learners have not studied with these specimens, makes it inevitable that they will fail if such a question is presented to them by Uneb,” Mugaiga said.
For theory papers, he said candidates with zeros have a tendency to spot questions, and Uneb asks otherwise.
“A-level students do this quite often, but we discourage it. For a subject like Physics Paper 2 with about four sections on optics, waves, magnetism and electricity, some students tend to concentrate on particular sections and ignore others. When they study all sections, they focus on specific topics and leave out others, but for Uneb exams, you need to cover all topics to excel,” Mugaiga, a physics teacher, said.
The National Chairperson of the National Private Schools Teachers Association (NAPSTA), Paul Etyang, attributed the zero scores to, among other things, teacher absenteeism and limited contact hours with students.
“Teachers are absent in schools, and if they come, they leave as early as 3 p.m. or 4 p.m. and attend to other private things, especially in rural areas. This is not even about low payment, but a lack of enforcement systems by the education ministry and supervision by head teachers, who are often undermined by their staff. Even if students begin revising on their own, they will be gambling with some of these topics because they are poorly taught” according to Etyang. He added that balancing papers was still a major roadblock at A-level.
A seasoned educationist and former director at the education ministry, Dr Yusuf Nsubuga, was not surprised by the zero scores. He said the quality of teaching and teachers is currently at its lowest level countrywide.
“The truth is that there’s no teaching and learning in schools nowadays. Teachers are teaching subjects theoretically, and students are cramming to pass or fail exams because they are not taught well. We have half-backed teachers teaching in subjects where they got passes or failed. For a subject like physics, you can’t have a mediocre teacher and think students will pass it,” Nsubuga said.
He said unless the government sorts out the current crisis of science teachers in schools, candidates will continue to post low grades. Nsubuga said the “reality on the ground” is that the few science teachers are shared among schools, which inhibits their performance in mainly practical papers.
Indeed, the board noted that cases of malpractice, in which 113 results were withheld, are mainly due to external assistance in practical papers. Nsubuga emphatically said that most of the malpractices are orchestrated by teachers due to a lack of proper teaching and learning in schools.
“During my time as chair of the Uneb security committee, candidates with withheld results openly confided in us that by the time they did exams, they had never done any practicals at school. Now, how do you expect this child, seeing a test tube for the first time, to write correct answers? They will either copy or accept to be assisted by their teachers,” he said.
Nsubuga, who is also a commissioner at the Education Policy Review Commission, called for an accelerated overhaul of the A-level curriculum. He said two years is too short a time to cover all the subjects with obsolete content. Students have one year and four months to study, while some subjects like biology, chemistry, physics, and history are too bulky to study in their current form.
Meanwhile, Uneb called for a comprehensive study on the dwindling numbers of candidates sitting for A- level examinations. The board wants to ascertain whether students join A-level after S4 or if the biggest number is absorbed in tertiary institutions.
The Uneb chairperson, Prof. Mary Okwakol, was concerned that the number of candidates who did not sit the examinations also increased from 1.0 per cent in 2020 to 1.4 per cent in 2022. Yet, absenteeism had been decreasing steadily over the last four years.
Abim and Buvuma districts already have low numbers but high rates of absenteeism at 26.6 per cent and 40.0 per cent, respectively. Uneb did not receive candidates from Terego and Nabilatuk districts.
In an interview, the district education officer (DEO) for Nabilatuk, Raymond Korobe, said: “We didn’t have any candidates because there were no A-level schools since the formation of the district in 2018. After S4, students have been travelling to Moroto for A-level. Our first candidates from two government centers will sit this year.”
The assistant DEO of Terego, Macarius Adrole, said there are four government and four private schools with A-level status that have been presenting candidates.
“I don’t know what happened this time, but I think within the Uneb system, they are still categorizing Terego schools under Arua,” Adrole said.