UNEB grading controversy sparks debate on education assessment

UNEB grading controversy sparks debate on education assessment
UNEB Executive Director, Mr Dan Nokrach Odongo.

Kampala, Uganda | By Michael Wandati | The Uganda National Examinations Board (UNEB) has denied accusations of implementing a prejudiced grading system that allegedly put candidates from particular schools or regions at a disadvantage in the recently disclosed Primary Leaving Examination (PLE) results.

In an official statement issued by UNEB Executive Director Dan Odongo, the board asserted that the grading system maintains consistency and adheres to established quality assurance procedures. It emphasizes fairness and assures that no discrimination occurs based on regional, urban, or rural factors.

“The Board reassures the public that the grading system is uniform and, is in tandem with the set quality assurance procedures without any discrimination on any basis-regional, urban or rural. As such, any allegation of unfair advantage of some candidates over others is malicious propaganda, baseless, and should be treated with utmost contempt,” UNEB Executive Director Dan Odongo noted.

He underscored that UNEB conducts assessments that are not only valid, reliable, and equitable but also upholds quality standards with a professional and innovative approach, leading to the issuance of internationally recognized certificates. This statement comes in response to allegations that the board systematically undertook lower grading for urban schools while showing favoritism towards rural schools.

The allegation, supported by concerned parents, has taken a political and tribal dimension, with certain politicians seizing the opportunity to assert that the board intentionally downgraded schools in areas where the ruling government did not emerge victorious in the general election. This is alleged to show favoritism towards learners from NRM strongholds.

The ongoing discussion has been notably fueled by a social media post apparently captured from a WhatsApp group of old boys of St Mary’s College, Kisubi-SMACK90, gaining traction through widespread sharing by various users.

In this post, a parent claims to have visited UNEB to file a complaint. According to this parent, upon retrieval of their child’s exam script, it was revealed that the student had scored above 90 per cent in all subjects. However, the official grading awarded the child 8 aggregates, raising suspicions of irregularities in the assessment process.

In the Primary Leaving Examination (PLE) assessment, learners are assigned scores ranging from Distinction One to F9 in each of the four subjects. Achieving the highest grade, Distinction One (D1), in all four subjects would result in a total of 4 aggregates.

However, Mr. Odongo dismisses any claim suggesting that candidates’ scripts can be readily accessed. He refutes such assertions as hoaxes and advises that they be disregarded.

“Accessing candidates’ scripts is highly restricted with tight security measures due to the sensitivity and complexities around the scripts. Any person who purports to have seen their child’s scripts and the raw marks is therefore making a claim,” he added.

Prior to Odongo’s statement, our reporter conducted interviews with various sources within UNEB and the Ministry of Education and Sports regarding the issue. One source, highlighting the difficulty in accessing scripts, outlined two potential avenues that might lead to the retrieval of candidates’ scripts.

The source explained, “If UNEB allowed candidates to request their scripts, we would be dealing with crowds every day. The only scenario where a learner might come close to accessing a script is if there is suspicion of malpractice, and the security committee invites those involved to appear before it. Additionally, there could be a possibility if there is a court order.”

Two additional sources from the board emphasized that UNEB has consistently strengthened its systems and implemented enhanced quality assurance mechanisms. They noted that currently, examiners and markers are unable to discern the origin of the script before them during the marking process.

They added that the marking procedure has been overhauled to the extent that each paper is assessed by different individuals, and markers are unaware of the school associated with the script.

“School names are deliberately omitted from the scripts, and papers are identified solely by random numbers assigned to students on the examination day. The introduction of random numbers serves, among other reasons, to eliminate the possibility of the examiner knowing the school they are marking,” the sources added, defending UNEB’s assessment and quality assurance systems also no reference to document highlighting these practices was given.

The Uganda National Examinations Board (UNEB) has faced previous accusations of undermarking and undergrading top city schools in both 2018 and 2019. In these instances, parents from various first-class schools in Kampala and Wakiso District accused the Examinations Board of undermarking candidates in urban schools. The controversy typically arises when the results show only a few candidates from these schools achieving aggregates of four.

A specific case reported by The Daily Monitor involved a parent allegedly petitioning UNEB after their child from a Kampala school received a Second Grade with an aggregate of 15 in the Primary Leaving Examination (PLE). Following a remarking process, the child’s score was revised to an aggregate of 7.

Over the past two days, attempts to contact the author of the post that triggered the situation have been unsuccessful, as the number associated with the post has consistently been unreachable.

Our reporter has also reached out to various individuals, including politicians and school owners, actively participating in the discussion. While some declined to discuss the matter they posted about on social media or talked about on television and radio stations, many others chose not to comment, stating, “I was also told.”

In contrast, UNEB stated that it reached out to the individual who allegedly authored the message and discovered that the misleading post was drafted a long time ago, raising questions about the accuracy and timing of the information being circulated.

“We have reached out to the author of the Original message who wrote the message shared. He says his daughter, whose identity he does not disclose, is now studying in the equivalent of Senior Five in some international system. He also does not disclose the person who allegedly helped him access the scripts of his daughter but claims the person retired from the Board already. This story is untrue,” the statement issued adds.

Hasadu Kirabira, the chairperson of the National Private Education Institutions Association, presented a different perspective. Kirabira noted that, in contrast to UNEB’s statements, there have been consistent silent complaints over the years regarding the grading system. According to him, they have received information from various sources indicating shortcomings in UNEB’s marking and grading processes.

Kirabira added that some schools have openly declared that they filed complaints with the board, citing what they perceive as unfairness in the grading system.

“UNEB may deny it, but some schools have filed complaints. Top schools have quietly raised concerns with the board, leading to corrections in grading errors,” stated Kirabira,

Kirabira expressed concerns about the quality of examiners, markers, and the entire process, including scoring papers and entering information into computers.

“We have sufficient insider information that the marking process is sometimes understaffed, and the timelines are tight. Under such conditions, mistakes are bound to happen. Interactions with individuals within UNEB and the markers themselves confirm that errors occur in this process, potentially impacting students’ performance,” Kirabira stated.

However, he adds that such mistakes not only affect learners in top city schools but also those in rural areas who are sometimes voiceless.

A headteacher, who preferred to remain anonymous, added that the advantage UNEB has is that the scripts are not returned, preventing any queries from being raised. The headteacher pointed out that the UNEB assessment lacks transparency, as the board has never disclosed the grading system to the public.

“In our schools, we know that a learner who scores from this per cent to this has achieved this score in the examination, but UNEB’s grading system is not known. We just hear rumours that those who scored 80 or 90 obtained Distinction One; everything is by rumour,” the teacher noted.

What is prompting this change?

Alice Musoke, a teacher from Masaka, holds a different perspective. She noted that some so-called top schools and their parents, who are mostly middle-class elites, have developed a sense of entitlement over time, expecting that all their children must achieve an aggregate of four or better, securing a first-grade qualification.

“Things have changed over time. There were rumours that these schools were either copying examinations or teaching their students to memorize answers. Now, the questions are more competence-based, requiring the application of knowledge. This shift is exposing them, and given their high fees, they might provide misleading explanations to parents,” Musoke opined. Sources from UNEB echoed similar sentiments.

However, there are also explanations suggesting that rural areas are witnessing the establishment of better private schools. These schools in rural areas offer nearly the same standards of education as those in urban centers, leading to stiff competition and bridging the urban-rural divide that has historically existed in the education sector.

This analysis is supported by UNEB data, particularly when examining the performance of schools with aggregate scores ranging from 4 to 12. The data reveals that several private schools established in rural areas within the last five to ten years consistently achieve impressive results.

Also Read: UNEB releases 2023 PLE results with drop in division one, two

City schools still outperform their rural counterparts, but there is a noticeable trend of fewer students obtaining aggregate scores of 4 or 5. In previous years, a single school could have more than 100 students with such scores. However, in the 2023 PLE results, the highest number of candidates with a score of 4 aggregate from a single school was 68, in a class of 586 candidates. Only 14 schools nationwide had more than 10 students achieving an aggregate score of 4.

Growing calls for national examination and assessment reforms

In recent times, the perception of national examinations as a make-or-break endeavor has been pervasive among parents and teachers, with a collective desire for students to achieve the highest possible results.

However, amidst discussions about individual scores, numerous educationists and policymakers are pointing fingers at the entire assessment framework, deeming it flawed and in need of a complete overhaul.

This sentiment has been a prevalent theme in the ongoing public hearings led by the Education Policy Review Commission under Nuwe Amanya Mushega. Many individuals and entities, including the National Planning Authority, advocate for a revamp of the assessment framework. They propose introducing more opportunities for class-based continuous assessment and phasing out national summative examinations like PLE.

Addressing the matter, Dr. Hamis Mugendawala, the Manager of Policy Research and Innovation at NPA, highlighted that the purpose of assessment at the primary level, especially with PLE, has become excessively focused and non-uniform. This often limits learning to examinable subjects, particularly in private schools.