Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (512)
Examining the problem
Exams, that perennial problem, were looked at especially closely in 1932 when Al-Ahram published several stories on the issue, most of which were scathing in their criticism of this element in Egypt's educational system. Some though, thought exams should remain unchanged. It was, as Professor Yunan Labib Rizk* reveals, a test of wills
In the summer of 1932, Al-Ahram introduced Abdel-Alim, an "intrepid reporter" who furnished the newspaper with nothing short of a brilliant verbal portrait of "the examination terror". If this spectre has grown particularly gruesome in recent years, what with economic demands and the shortcomings in our educational system combining to drive panicky students into the clutches of the extracurricular private lesson system, Abdel-Alim's article describes its roots among a degree-worshipping public.
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Helmi Eissa; Egyptian school children stand in line, awaiting the start of another day
The writer opens with an attack against the Ministry of Education for all the "fanfare and reverence" it attached to the elementary and secondary school certificate examinations. The ordeal was far in excess of anything students experienced in other exams, even in the exams for higher educational diplomas, and Abdel-Alim had nothing but sympathy for the young students who were forced to endure it.
As if they were not already nervous, the examination venue was certain to intimidate them. "An enormous tent, stretched over a vast area, its innumerable supporting poles extend into the distance, is crammed with the student bodies of diverse and sundry schools. Not a sound is heard except footsteps and nothing is to be seen except stern faces, eyes shifting right and left, and palms clenched in the small of the back, their owners stealthily marching down the aisles between the desk, on the alert, as a hawk among doves, waiting to catch one unawares. This is the inspector, the venerable sergeant whom the students can only understand as the sparrow understands the eagle. Cautiously, suspiciously, fearfully, they tremor before him.
As for the head inspector in the tent, he is the dictator, his opinions absolute, his actions above question, his rulings beyond appeal. Meanwhile, nervous parents press near the entrances, quaking as though on the day of reckoning.
This scathing criticism appears on the front page of Al-Ahram of 4 June 1932, under the headline: "On behalf of the seekers of knowledge from the sentinels of knowledge: Be gentle, Angasha, with the flasks of the Prophet." The exhortation alludes to a story from the life of the Prophet. Angasha was a young Ethiopian camel driver in charge of the camel transporting the Prophet's household. Fearful that the youth would prod the camel into a pace that would dangerously jostle the women and children riding in the litter on its back, the Prophet said: "Slowly, Angasha, as though you were carrying glass flasks."
Although Al-Ahram did not reveal the full identity of the writer, who wrote six more instalments on the subject, his erudition and stylistic lyricism suggest that he had worked in the field of education. Indeed, he confesses so much in his final article, in which he wrote: "This pen has roamed the columns of the press for years and has long offered its services as counsel and guide to the Ministry of Education. I have several children enrolled in the ministry's schools and my friends and relatives have sons and daughters whose welfare I care for. Education is a womb, and I have taught, enjoyed teaching and taken great pleasure at bringing young souls from the darkness of ignorance into the light of knowledge. I, therefore, declare that I am writing for my children."
One can thus better appreciate Abdel-Alim's unreserved empathy for children who, "whether they enter the examinations tent singly or in groups, find nothing to ease their minds or allay their fears." And his unbridled scorn for what they do encounter: "a rigid path, sharper than the blade of a sword and narrower than a hair's breadth, and adults who spout nothing but do's and don'ts, and regulations and cautions." It is a merciless ordeal to the last moment. "When the bell rings, pens grind to a halt, the doors slam shut, and the guards will have not a second's grace for anyone who dares lag behind."
Abdel-Alim could see no reason why elementary and secondary school certificate examinations could not be conducted as ordinary end of year exams. "Each graduating class could be examined in their own school in the manner in which they sat for examinations in previous years. There would be nothing novel or inconvenient in this. The Ministry of Education would simply send the examination papers in a sealed envelope to each school and take the completed papers in sealed envelopes so that they could be corrected in the ministry. The integrity of ministry staff is the same wherever examinations are conducted... Is not the first year secondary school exam of greater value than the elementary school certificate? Is not a higher educational examination of greater value than the baccalaureate exam? Why complicate matters so needlessly? And why squander all that expense at setting up marquees, appointing inspectors and employing janitors?"
In his second article, Abdel-Alim cites examples of what students at the time were subjected to. From the Arabic grammar paper for the baccalaureate in science came the question: "What state does the poet represent in the following verse: 'Was I but a sword tinged with rust and you, Oh talented one, its grindstone?'"
"Why did the examiner choose this verse from all other possible metaphorical examples? Was complexity of meaning the exam setter's intent, even though it is not education's purpose to make things convoluted? Why tax the student's mind by demanding that he first understand the verse? And even supposing he understood it, his energies would dwindle before he could explicate the metaphor and its grammatical mechanisms. On behalf of all baccalaureate students I say that this question is too difficult and that, to me, the student who fails to answer it is more intelligent than the one who does."
Abdel-Alim took another example from the geography paper given to final year students in the Princess Fawqiya School for Girls. It read: "Describe the courses of the Murray and Darling Rivers and discuss to what degree they are navigable. Discuss the terrain of these river basins, with special reference to their most important cities and agricultural produce. Illustrate your answer with a map."
Such questions, Abdel-Alim asserts, are not so much a test of students' intelligence as a gauge of the mentality of the testers. "It is they who set the questions, they who control the answers and they who produce the results, which they visit upon the nation like a calamity." He wonders what the examiners imagine would be the consequence of their female charges' deficient knowledge of the Murray and Darling river complex. "Will they cut off their hair? Will the market of suitors dry up? Will the Italians occupy Marsa Matrouh?" he asks, adding, "God prevent such tyranny!"
Not surprisingly, given the public concern for the state of the educational system, Abdel-Alim's criticisms drew widespread interest. Indeed, so many letters poured into the offices of Al-Ahram that the critic decided to devote an entire installment to them. It appeared in Al-Ahram on 7 June 1932.
The examples of over-demanding test questions he cited elicited a strong and sympathetic response from a group of letter writers he described as "dedicated teachers". Referring to an algebra exam given recently to baccalaureate candidates, they wrote, "This was the most difficult examination ever set for the baccalaureate. Every question contained an element that was so obscure that if the student did not have a flash of inspiration he would have to leave the paper blank."
After illustrating their claim with several of the questions that students had to contend with, most dealing with some of the most challenging algebraic functions, they pointed out an important problem. "Students have only two algebra classes per week, which is not sufficient to equip them to answer these questions," they wrote. As proof, they cited the reports by Ministry of Education inspectors who had long suggested changing the curriculum to provide for an additional algebra class, the hours for which would be subtracted from the national history portion of the curriculum. However, they added, should ministry officials still have any doubts with regard to this necessity of such a measure "a simple inquiry at the Saidiya, Tawfiqiya and Shobra secondary schools, which had a significant share of the most proficient teachers in the nation, would be sufficient to ascertain that it is impossible to teach the required algebra programme in its entirety due to insufficient class time." Abdel- Alim, for his part, appealed to the ministry to come up with an immediate and appropriate solution to "rescue" students from this problem. Above all, it should ensure that those who set examination papers were "people from the ministry who are aware of the realities in the schools, rather than people from outside the ministry whose questions are based on pure assumption."
Another group of teachers echoed Abdel-Alim's beliefs. Rather than focussing on a specific examination subject, they addressed what they described as the "ailment and remedy" in public school examinations. These they set out in a five-point document as follows:
"1. Upon the drafting of examination papers a curious phenomenon occurs. The drafters are overcome by a spirit that inclines them to be complex and obscure. Yet once they have completed their task and have the opportunity to relax, should one repeat to them the questions they have posed, they will be the first to criticise them.
"2. Generally, the school dean has the fullest confidence in the people he entrusts with drafting the examination papers. This confidence frequently blinds the dean to the need to revise the questions so as to simplify them to a reasonable level.
"3. Since the curriculum is the same for all public schools, it is unreasonable that each school should set examinations for its students independently of other schools. Differences in personalities must inevitably affect the thought processes of those who compose the examinations and, hence, the outcome. It is unjust that the fate of students, who follow the same curriculum, who are of approximately the same age and who are subject to the same regulations, should be subject to such arbitrariness, especially as the disparity between the exam results of different schools can be traced to the disparity in the examination papers.
"4. In light of the foregoing, end of year examinations should be uniform for all schools. They should be distributed by the ministry and gauged to the abilities of the average student so as to ensure fair and equal opportunity. This method was, in fact, put into effect in 1929, when the general-inspector of primary education went to Alexandria, compiled a dossier of students' work from that city's various primary schools and, using mean performance as a standard, created a uniform test paper for those schools whose deans were delighted with the results.
"5. Another occurrence in public school examinations is that fourth-year teachers grade the examinations of third-year students, third-year teachers grade the examinations of second-year students and so forth. This is wrong, because the examination markers are unconsciously influenced by the subject matter in the higher levels for which they are responsible. At the very least, the markers should have consultants from the lower levels who are sensitive to the actual capacities of the students sitting for the exams."
That Abdel-Alim championed compassion for students taking exams was abundantly evident in his fourth installment in which he portrays a student's father who has just been presented with his son's examination results. Opening the envelope of one of the exam results, the first thing the father sees, Abdel-Alim writes, is "a bold red mark next to the grade indicating that the pupil has failed". He continues, "The school may have some excuse if the grade is far below the minimum grade necessary for success. However, the distressed parent will most likely find that the grade his son received was only one or two points short of the mark. Again, one might forgive the school for its severity were the student's marks in his other papers poor, in which case it would be of no avail to assist the student by pushing up the mark a point or two, especially if this is only a secondary subject."
Abdel-Alim could find no justification for such stringency in borderline cases. It was not so much the overall grade that was an issue but the failure of the school to appreciate an important psychological element, which was that "success begets success and failure begets failure." It was for this reason that "the results of this rigidity, most unfortunately, take a heavy toll on a helpless nation." At the same time, however, he makes it clear that the fault did not reside entirely with the schools. The Ministry of Education had issued clear instructions that examination papers should not be revised upwards by more than a single point.
Although the writer had many sympathisers, there were also not a few opponents to his pleas for leniency. Nagati Ahmed Barakat, a teacher, was one. In a letter to Al-Ahram, appearing under the headline, "Go slowly Abdel-Alim," Barakat maintains that Abdel-Alim's arguments may have had some validity in the past, "in the days when we needed people to decipher the encryptions in books and letters, but could find no one." Now, however, was a different matter. "Things have changed. We are more advanced than we were, to the degree that we can vie with the most civilised nations. Today, too, the supply far exceeds demand and school graduates face something of a crisis. It would be more advisable and more worthy of us not to show off if it means inflicting a deeper harm by cramming our brains with information simply in order to pass the examinations only to embark on another life after graduating for which we are more ignorant than flies."
Not surprisingly, Abdel-Alim disagreed. The function of schools is to instruct and produce graduates. What happens afterwards is the responsibility of the government and its educational and social planning authorities. Moreover, if one were to subscribe to Barakat's logic, then it would be more humane for schools "not to accept students with average prospects to begin with than to allow them in, kick them around, pray they mess up and put them through rigors one wouldn't wish on any human being on earth." He then asks Barakat, "Do you mean that by refusing to indulge a borderline student with a point or two should not only compel him to repeat a year but also deprive him of the opportunity to re-sit the exam?"
On the other hand, Abdel-Alim did confess that exams were a "necessary evil" and he devoted the remaining instalments to suggestions for minimising that evil as much as possible. He returns, firstly, to the business of designing examination papers, a task he describes as equivalent to "manufacturing a very precise, delicate, comprehensive and error-free balance". Interestingly, he points out that "the most learned scholars may not know how to formulate examination questions" and that "the most adept at this may be the ordinary, everyday teacher."
Examination questions themselves had to be like "a virgin maiden -- chaste, honest and above all suspicious". Unfortunately, such questions were a rare breed, and Abdel-Alim cites numerous examples from recent examination papers of questions that lurked like deliberately laid booby traps.
In that year's baccalaureate chemistry exam, students were asked to explain the Faraday effect, a phenomenon that fell more precisely under physics. Abdel-Alim took exception to the blurring of the lines between the two sciences, however justified that might be in theory, because the chemistry exam was held the day before the physics exam, for which students had not yet mentally prepared themselves.
That year's baccalaureate history exam contained a question on the effect of Belgium's entry into the "Great War" in 1914. Abdel- Alim relates: "A teacher told me that this issue is not even covered in the history programme." In the same paper, students had to respond to a question that Abdel-Alim found particularly objectionable. They were to discuss the "patriotic spirit" in Egypt in the wake of the British occupation. The question seemed designed to place students with strong patriotic feelings in a very awkward situation because they were obliged to provide their answers "on government papers in an official exam".
Following these examples and more, Abdel-Alim recommends providing teachers with lessons on how to set and mark exams. The latter task he regarded as "more demanding and in need of greater attention than the problem of drafting questions". The reason: the marker was the "final authority upon whom converged all the mistakes of his predecessors". It was he, therefore, who should take into account, in addition to the faults in the exam questions, the circumstances in which the examinations were held as well as the mental state of the students and the time allotted to them to complete their tests. Unfortunately, insufficient attention was not given to such psychological considerations, and a major cause could be found in the pressures placed on the markers themselves.
As proof, he cites a newspaper article reporting a complaint lodged by the team in charge of correcting that year's primary school examinations. Each marker was given a large pile of papers to read through, and instructed not to leave his place until he had finished marking them. However, members of the team grieved. "The corrector is but a mind that grows weary from the tedium of scrutiny, recording dozens of numbers and covering the surfaces of the papers in red pencil, the lines of which are reminiscent of the blood sweat from the arteries of the students."
Another set of graders complained of even more arduous circumstances. Selected to correct that year's final year secondary school examinations, they were corralled together into the students' classrooms. In addition to the crowded and stifling conditions, they were subjected to the humiliation of being treated as grade-schoolers themselves. "We were made to sit next to one another on the students' desks as inspectors marched up and down the aisles saying, 'Don't talk sir,' 'Work please,' and 'Stay alert, effendi.' A bell would ring to signal a break, as though we were students being let out on recess. And just like students, we had to report in the early morning and remain until the bell rang in the evening."
According to Abdel-Alim, the cause behind these degrading conditions was the Ministry of Economy, which was keen on saving the costs on travel expenses for the teachers. He then remarks, "If the ministry were really interested in economising, it would pay the markers on the basis of the work they produced, which would inspire greater confidence in the results. Unfortunately, the current method only guarantees error, confusion and forgetfulness." To make matters worse, he continues, the markers are not necessarily teachers in the subjects they are assigned to correct. As he explained the situation, "The butler is not a cook and the cook does not know how to set a table. The host who attempts to make one perform the other's task is certain to be disgraced before his guests when they -- rightfully -- criticise his table." Further aggravating matters was that the Ministry of Education provided markers with "model answers". Under the influence of these examples, markers would be given to depreciating student responses that were in fact well written. Worse, the model answers were not always error-free. That for a chemistry examination held that "steel contains a higher percentage of carbon than iron when the reverse is true".
Perhaps it was Abdel-Alim's campaign waged on the pages of Al- Ahram that inspired Minister of Education Helmi Eissa to issue a statement to parliament in which he announced that "the system of instruction has undergone a profound change in both its academic and practical dimensions. The educational system has been entirely overhauled and the effects of the old system have been totally eradicated," he declared.
Abdel-Alim was not convinced. Describing Eissa as the "optimistic minister", he pointed out that if examination results were the yardstick of success, then this measurement had failed to bear out the minister's claim. Indeed, the secondary school graduation exam results that year had been worse than the preceding year. He concludes his series by posing a difficult question to the minister: "if students had worked to the best of their abilities, parents had paid their fees, teachers had performed their duties appropriately and 'the system of instruction had undergone a profound change in both its academic and practical dimensions,' then why did the results not reflect this change?" The question remains apt today.
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.