UNEB Grading Controversy Awakens Education Assessment Debate

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The allegations of employing a biased grading system that disadvantaged candidates from specific schools or regions in the recently released Primary Leaving Examination (PLE) results have been refuted by the Uganda National Examinations Board (UNEB).

In a statement issued by UNEB Executive Director Dan Odongo, it was emphasized that the grading system is consistent and adheres to established quality assurance procedures, guaranteeing fairness without any form of discrimination 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,” Odongo noted.

He emphasized that UNEB conducts assessments that are valid, reliable, equitable, and uphold quality standards professionally and innovatively, leading to the awarding of internationally recognized certificates. The statement is in response to allegations that the board systematically undegraded urban schools while favouring rural schools.

The claim, supported by concerned parents, has taken on a political and tribal dimension, with some 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, allegedly showing favouritism towards learners from NRM strongholds.

The ongoing discussion is largely fueled by a social media post that seems to have been captured from a WhatsApp group of old boys of St Mary’s College, Kisubi-SMACK90 and has gained traction through widespread sharing by various users.

In the said post, a parent alleges 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, prompting 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, Odongo refutes any claim suggesting that candidates’ scripts can be readily accessed. He dismisses 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.

Before Odongo’s statement, our reporter conducted interviews with various sources within UNEB and the Ministry of Education regarding the issue. One of the sources, who also emphasized the difficulty in accessing scripts, outlined two potential avenues that “maybe” 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 underscored 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 2018 and 2019. On all occasions, several parents among the hitherto first-class schools in Kampala and Wakiso District have been accusing the Examinations Board of undermarking candidates in urban schools. The uproar always starts with the results which return with only a handful of the candidates in these schools being able to score aggregates four.

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

For 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 been consistently unreachable.

Our reporter has also reached out to various individuals, including politicians and school owners, who have been 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 said it reached out to the individual who allegedly authored the message and it was 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, expressed a different viewpoint. Kirabira mentioned that, contrary to UNEB’s statements, there have been ongoing silent complaints over the years regarding the grading system. According to him, they have received information from various sources indicating lapses 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 causing the shift?

Alice Musoke, a teacher from Masaka, holds a different perspective. She noted that some so-called top schools and their parents who are mostly the 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 centres, 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 are consistently achieving impressive results.

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.

More voices Urge Reforms to National examination, Assessment Framework

In recent times, the perception of national examinations as a make-or-break endeavour 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.

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