Feature Article of Saturday, 13 October 2012

Columnist: Owusu, Stephen Atta

Grades Inflation at SHS Exams - a Hype or Political Manipulation?

As this year's election campaign heats up to boiling point, promises upon promises are being made to the electorate. Nana Akufo-Addo, the presidential aspirant of New Patriotic Party, has consistently drummed home a non-paying SHS education when voted into power. This has been described by the ruling National Democratic Congress (NDC) as balder-dash and absolutely impossible. The NDC claims that during their rule, the quality of education in Ghana has risen to enviable heights. As if to confirm this, it was announced that this year's SHS final WASSCE has registered a whopping 99.6% pass. Such a pass rate is unprecedented in the history of the JHS/SHS system.

Ever since the JHS/SHS system was introduced in Ghana, the final WAEC examination results had not passed 70%. What is responsible for this exceptional performance? A total of 324,998 students registered for the examination. Out of these 310,077 got a minimum of five passes and above. According to a Daily Graphic news item of 10th August 2012, 22,014 candidates had their results withheld for this year's May/June WASSCE examination. They are on investigation for various cases of examination malpractices. The Graphic story continued that 733 candidates had some of their subject results cancelled while 153 candidates had all their results cancelled.

This notwithstanding, the result of this year's SHS certificate examination was phenomenal, far exceeding any result the previous SHS candidates had known for the last three years. It is believed that the government is behind it as obvious malpractices before and during the examinations by students aided by teachers and invigilators went undetected. The ruling NDC government has expressed victory and satisfaction with the excellent results. Does the government want to say that education has improved so much during their time in office? Is this a propaganda gimmick meant to undermine Akufo-Addo's idea of a fee-free SHS?

This year's overall pass rate has not only been very high, there have been exceptional performances at the individual levels too. Our children seem to have, suddenly, become little Einsteins. I interviewed ten students through direct phone calls and on Facebook chat. Five of them were from a well-known school in Cape Coast where, according to them, more than 90 students got straight 8As! Similar results have been reported from several schools - 20, 30, 50 candidates with perfect straight As. How on earth can so many achieve such a feat? Even with the easy availability of SparkNotes and Cliff Study Guides as well as other resources on the internet, such results, naturally, raise eye brows.

If you are wondering whether the results show that children are becoming very brilliant or that the exams are getting too easy or that the marking is too lenient, then you know now that many schools provided illegal help to their students. When one compares the results of the 70s and 80s to today's results, one realises that it was rare, very very rare, for anybody to get 8 1s at the "O Level" or 4 As at the "A Levels" in those days. Even in the best schools, not more than four could get 8 1s in each school. If a student got such a result, it was known as 1D (1 Distinction). The students who did exceptionally well in certain key subjects got special awards from WAEC. Today WAEC cannot award outstanding students - there are too many. Imagine 90 students getting 8 1s in only one school!!!

Something funny is definitely happening these days. Three students I talked to who got 7As and a B said they may not continue to the university not because of financial problems but they know deep in their hearts that they are not good academically. According to them the teachers were able to get all the examination questions for them, with the answers provided, every evening before they wrote the papers in the morning. Even in the examination room, the invigilators and the teachers freely helped them. Two students said all their papers were cancelled. This is something we heard of in the 80s only in Nigeria. Today, Ghanaians are not far behind the Nigerians in such nefarious practices. Sometimes, we even surpass them.

Despite the superb results, many people with very good grades cannot get places in the state universities. It is said that more than 200 of those who applied to the University of Ghana Medical School (UGMS) had perfect all As. But the school cannot take all of them. So they have to go through an interview which will give a chance to some people who may not have gotten all As but were good students.

The private universities now have a field day. For the first time they will also be able to get their share of students with 7 and 8 As. These private universities could only get students with B and C passes. These universities, purely because of pecuniary motives, admitted such students with weak passes. These students are strongly advised to improve upon those subjects they failed in before they reach the final year. Last year 580 students were summarily dismissed in their second year at Rev. Otabil's Central University for their inability to improve upon the failed subjects as a condition for their admission. This caused widespread anger among the students and parents involved.

The admission systems in the public universities have been fully computerized. This does not prevent them from being fraught with mistakes. Some students with very good grades could not find their names on any of the admission lists even though they applied for the same courses as others who were admitted with worse grades. The registries are swarmed with parents complaining or willing to pay anything to get their wards a place.

The public universities are already overcrowded with facilities becoming poorer and poorer. A room in the halls that once housed two students now takes six students with more than four squatters. The bathrooms and toilet facilities are nothing to write home about. The lecture halls that were built for eighty to hundred students now take not less than six hundred students. Some of the students have to stand and peep through windows to listen to their lecturers. Some lecturers have to grade more than 800 exam papers in only one course.

In the 70s, Legon had a population of under 4000 students in six halls of residence. It was strictly two to a room with the main halls having single student rooms. Food was always available in the halls' dining halls and the famous "Central Cafeteria". It was even better in the 60s. Those were the days when Legon students sauntered leisurely into the dining halls during meal times and ate as much as they could. They were the days when, at breakfast, you could tell the guy sitting next to you to "please, pass me the milk". Those days are gone forever. Today there are almost 40,000 students in eleven halls of residence. All the “traditional” halls have annexes. Outside the campus, there are private hostels exploiting desperate students!!! Students at the state universities have to pay all kinds of fees these days – huge "admission" fees, hostel fees and a whole lot of other payments. This is a far cry from Nkrumah's Ghana.

Since the introduction of the JHS/SHS system, when students could not obtain good grades to enter the university, some used the grades of their friends. So the owner of the grades may be at KNUST or abroad and the impersonator may be at Legon. Two years ago, two students were arrested for impersonation at Legon campus. When an announcement was made on campus that an investigation was going to be conducted at all the state universities to fish out impersonators who would then be prosecuted, 380 students escaped from the University of Ghana alone. They vamoosed into thin air! Na waow!!!

It is difficult to cheat at exams at the university. It is difficult but not impossible. These days in Ghana, you can pay someone, even your own lecturer, to write your thesis or long essay for you. In some of the universities, the prices of such efforts are fixed and non-negotiable. They may depend on the academic level and may rise as inflation increases. Any wonder you get university graduates who cannot even express themselves in proper English?

The Times Higher Education (THE) supplement of the British newspaper, The Times, has recently released its rankings of the world's top universities for 2012-2013. From Africa, only four South African universities make it to the top 400. Legon, the best in Ghana (and probably in West Africa?), was nowhere in sight. The story is the same in the much older Shanghai Academic Ranking of World Universities where, again, only three South African universities make it to the top 500. No, we are not among the very best even in Africa, let alone the world.

There are many adverse effects of grade inflation and cheating. In the first place, the mechanism for sifting good students from the chaff is put out of gear. There are students who are naturally gifted, who also genuinely work hard. When there is widespread cheating, these students cannot be distinguished from the rest. They may not also get the courses they are best suited for in the universities. The nation's human resources may not be put to the most efficient use. Hardworking students can also be discouraged from working harder. Students who cheat their way through exams may not be able to perform well when they go to do graduate work in better universities abroad. This may cast a slur on our entire educational system making things difficult for genuinely good students who want to study abroad. Such students may be holding degrees that mean nothing. They are not capable of engaging in research and writing books that could be of use to the intellectual Ghanaian community.

Our politicians must not play politics with the education of our children. The quality of the education of our children cannot be a party political matter. The Ministry of Education should investigate and stamp out cheating in our schools. Offenders and collaborators should be punished. Efforts must be made to ensure that those who get the super grades really deserve those grades and can rub shoulders with the best of their counterparts abroad. Half-baked students will never be able to take off where our elders leave off.

Written by: Stephen Atta Owusu Author: Dark Faces At Crossroads Email: stephen.owusu@email.com