Many reasons have been adduced for the high failure rate in public examinations at the secondary school level in recent time, with some stakeholders putting the blame at the doors of the West African Examinations Council (WAEC). However, the council’s Head of National Office (HNO), Mr. Charles Eguridu, thinks differently.
Eguridu attended St. Malachy’s College, Sapele and the University of Lagos, where he obtained Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Psychology in 1979 and 1981. He rose through the ranks and was appointed the Principal Assistant Registrar and Head of the International Examinations Department at the council’s Headquarters in Accra, Ghana in April, 1996. He was promoted to Deputy Registrar in 2002, and Senior Deputy Registrar in 2009. He was appointed Head of the Nigeria National Office in October, 2012. In this interview with ROTIMI LAWRENCE OYEKANMI last Monday, at the council’s headquarters in Lagos, the HNO dissects the various issues associated with the conduct of the West African Senior School Certificate Examination (WASSCE), just as he proffers solutions to the high failure rate. Excerpts:
IS the conduct of the West African Senior School Certificate Examination (WASSCE) less challenging or more complex now than before?
I think it’s getting more complex. In the past, the major problem we used to have is the incidence of examination malpractice. In the past few years, we have been able to contain the leakage of our papers. What we now have are minor cases of examination malpractice, with candidates trying to exhibit abnormal pattern of behaviour, which, of course, is peculiar to candidates all over the world and not just to Nigeria alone.
We also face the challenge of movement of materials and examination papers from one part of the country to the other, because we can no longer trust third parties to handle the papers. In the past, we used to, but they betrayed us. So, what we do now is that, we sort of use a system whereby our office in Lagos and other branches across the country would be shut down to deal with the handling of examination materials. Our challenges now are also more complex because we now have to deal with the problems of insurgency, armed robbery and civil unrest in some parts of the country.
Conducting examinations in Nigeria has not been an easy enterprise. The past 10 months on the job have exposed me to a new level of reality, because the conduct of the May/June 2013 WASSCE was confronted with a lot of challenges. We lost three of our staff during an insurgent attack. They were shot dead and the other issue was that, even during the marking of last year’s examination scripts, one of our staff escaped death narrowly in Agbo, when he was caught in a cross fire between armed robbers and the Nigerian Police and we had to rush in to save him by sending him to Asaba for urgent medication attention.
It was quite challenging conducting examinations in a locked down area like Borno state. It was quite severe. The challenges of the office is such that, once in a while, you are summoned to appear before the Committee on Education at the House of Representatives, or you get an urgent call by the Ministry of Education or other stakeholders. So shuttling between Lagos and Abuja is one challenge that I find quite awesome.
Some stakeholders have accused WAEC of not changing its mode of setting examination questions for years, such that it becomes easy for candidates to predict how questions are set. What will be your reaction to that?
The act of assessment is a science in itself. We don’t repeat questions for candidates. Besides, if you look at how our operations started in the early 50s, when the organization was formed, we have migrated from our traditional mode. The examination conducted by WAEC cannot be compared with any other examination in Nigeria and indeed, the whole of Africa. We have examinations conducted by JAMB (Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board). JAMB conducts a one-day examination, which is only based on multiple-choice questions. Those critics talking about changes, what do they know about assessment?
We test people, not on the basis of assumption, but on the basis of scientifically proved methods. Our exams have a practical component. The practical component tests the sensory motor skills of the individual, while the essay component looks at the cognitive, comprehensive and other domains of testing. We also have the oral test, complemented by multiple-choice questions. Our test patterns are formed along what is obtainable anywhere in the world.
We are gradually moving towards the Computer Based Test (CBT) method, but we cannot move ahead of our society because how many people have access to computers? If WAEC decides tomorrow to run the May/June examination based on CBT, I am sure the entire country would be up in arms against us. We are ready, but how many people have access to the Internet? So, those making those assumptions are doing so out of ignorance.
Some parents blame WAEC and the teachers for the high rate of failure in the WASCCE. Teachers blame both the students for not being studious and the parents for not playing their roles. Ironically, the students, too, blame WAEC for deliberating failing them. So, what is your take on this? Who will WAEC blame?
My take is simple. WAEC is like a mirror. If you don’t dress well and you stand in front of your mirror, what your mirror would do is to reflect your image back to you.
WAEC is an assessment body. We are not the Ministry of Education. We don’t run the schools. The stakeholders, including the government, develop the curricula. Our tests are informed by the contents of the teaching curricular.
Now, rather than the students reading for life, people just read to pass examinations and they now resort to self help by buying past examination papers to get answers. When they work outside the box and they fail, they blame WAEC. If you want to look at the issues that affect performance, we need to ask questions, such as, how many parents, today, spend time to supervise their children when they come back from school?
In those days, when we were in school, we had the privilege of being in the boarding house. We had specific periods for reading; we had periods for games and the teacher ratio was such that, you could have a teacher supervise about 20 students. But now, we have a situation whereby schools have as many as about 60 students in one class. So, the level of supervision has sort of dropped.
Parents living in Ikorodu and working on the Lagos Island; they leave home around 4am because of traffic and they return at about 9 to 10pm, when the children have gone to bed. There are no hostels in the schools; the students engage with blackberry phones and are watching African Magic. So, what do you expect when there is no supervision?
In those days, we had the Open Day, where parents come around and examine the books of their children, to know whether they are falling in line or not. But parents today are so busy looking for money. The blame is, on the one hand with the parents; and on the other hand with the society and of course, the schools.
Look at the Universities. The lecturers are up in arms and the students are at home. Useful time is being wasted on issues of agitation and if WAEC were to conduct the university examination and the students fail, would you blame WAEC?
We have a standard and we cannot bring down the standard because our standard is comparable to those anywhere in the world. The issues are complex and I don’t think it would be fair to hold WAEC responsible for poor performance, except you want to give WAEC an additional mandate to go and train students for its examinations. Our examination syllabuses are derived from the teaching curriculum. We don’t sit down and demand that students should learn in a particular way. We get the teaching curriculum and from it, we extract the examination syllabus, from where we set the questions.
In the Ministry of Education’s 2012 Report, the pass rate in WASSCE being conducted by WAEC was marginal – 25.56 percent in 2009, 23.36 in 2010, 30.9 in 2011 and 39 percent in 2012. But in the National Examinations Council (NECO) examination, the pass rate was 10.6 percent in 2009, 9.36 percent in 2010, 8.06 percent in 2011 and then 31.58 percent in 2012. Is there something NECO is doing to record this leap in improvement that WAEC is not?
I would not want to make any comment on NECO’s examination because it’s a permanent examination body and it would not be fair to say anything negative about the conduct of its examination. I have respect for NECO and its staff, but we are an international body. We conduct the same examination like some other African countries like Ghana, Senegal, the Gambia and Liberia, hence, we cannot decide to change the goal post for Nigeria.
Whatever we are doing in Nigeria is what we would do in Ghana, Senegal, Liberia and the Gambia. The performance in WAEC examinations is taken across international boundaries, so you would find out that for the past three or four years, Ghana has been winning the prize for excellence. They produced the best candidate in West Africa, which, of course, I see as a challenge to Nigeria. Is there something they are doing right in their system that we are not doing? That of course should be our concern and not whether people are passing NECO exams.
If Nigerians are writing the same examination with Ghanaians, Sierra-Leoneans, Liberians and people from the Gambia, how come the Ghanaian students have been excelling and picking the prizes for excellence, back to back? There must be something outrageously irregular in what we are doing in our system.
TO BE CONTINUED