Why Are Our Students Not Performing Up to Expected Standards?

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This question, posed by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to the University of Liberia administration, is at the nerve center of any post-test inquiry into why 100% of 25,000 students failed this year’s entrance exam in June. To answer the President’s question, we need to establish the fact that there is a direct connection among teaching, learning and assessment.

Effective teaching in the classroom can be influenced by four elements: whom we teach (students), where we teach (learning environment), what we teach (curriculum content) and how we teach (instructional method). Teachers have to focus on all of these elements in order to have positive impact on the students (Tomlinson & McTighe 2006, p.2).

Teacher preparation and knowledge of subject matter play a crucial role in creating an effective classroom.  Based on the content of the curriculum, he determines what students should learn and establishes the connection between skills in the classroom and real life situation.  He also uses assessment tools (formative and summative) to investigate whether students have met the standards or not. Despite the infusion of massive capital into teacher education at the elementary level by USAID and UNICEF, effective teaching may still be a challenge for post-war educational system as reflected in poor performance in Liberia Senior High School Certificate Exam given by WAEC-Liberia and now the university entrance exam. Studies show that it will take about seven years before the impact of teacher training can be felt in the classroom.

Whom we teach is also crucial in this debate – the students. Are high school students reading on grade level? What is their competency level versus grade level? A student may be in the 10th grade but may be performing at the 5th grade level. In any single classroom, there are multiple levels of students with various learning needs. Tomlinson and McTighe (2006) add that there may be students with learning disability, students with advanced knowledge, difficulty staying on task, wide range of students’ interests, learning preferences, learning problems, motivation and socio-economic status. This is not peculiar to Liberia alone. Similar situation exists in the California classroom where I teach. Therefore, effective teaching and learning go hand in hand with differentiated instruction. If this is not done, a large percentage of the students may be left out of the learning process which manifests itself at the assessment stage.

What do we teach? We teach the contents of the curriculum prescribed by the Ministry of Education. Each subject area has a list of contents or topics to be covered in each six-week marking period. Tied to the contents are standards or specific objectives to be acquired by the students. Do teachers cover all the topics in each marking period? Effective teaching involves a careful preparation of daily lesson plans with clearly stated learning objectives to be followed by assessment and evaluation.

Direct teaching is also based on context or textbook. In what context, for example, will you teach the following specific objective in the 2011 English Language Curriculum: Unit 1 – Grammar: Nouns and Pronouns? Upon completion of this topic, students will be able to “identify nouns and pronouns; classify nouns and pronouns.”(Ministry of Education English Language Curriculum Grades 10-12 CD Rom). The context or resource to use is a textbook “Gateway to English for Senior Secondary Schools.”  Do all students have access to the prescribed book? Do all teachers have access to this book? Based on the availability of instructional materials, are all the contents of the curriculum covered for each marking period? Are the content standards met? Has the ministry put in place an internal testing system to monitor and evaluate the effective teaching of the curriculum?

Answers to these questions will help us get to the bottom of the problem – mass failure of students, not only in teacher-made class tests/exams, but also in standardized tests such as WAEC or university entrance exam.

Another critical concern associated with the curriculum is its availability in the schools. Do all teachers have copies of the revised national curriculum? If so, do they teach according to the curriculum? How is compliance with its implementation monitored in each school or classroom?

The church schools operated by the United Methodist Church, the Catholic Archdiocese or the concession companies such as Firestone have their own curriculum. Are they being implemented parallel to or in isolation of the national curriculum?

The classroom environment also plays an active role in teaching and learning. Where we teach determines student engagement. How over-crowded is the classroom? What is the student-teacher ratio? Do all students have seats? Given the fact that we are rising from the ashes of a destructive war, our schools are not equipped with electricity, computers, internet, audio/visual aids, running water, library or science labs. What about the physical structure of the school building? Does it reflect a clean and healthy environment?

When the University of Liberia was shutdown in 1979 as a result of student demonstration, all in-service student teachers on government scholarship were required to return to their counties and teach in public schools until the university reopened. I returned to Ganta where I had previously taught at Ganta Methodist School and Mamade Kromah Elementary School. But I was assigned at J.W. Pearson High School to teach English. Others were Judge James Zota, Joseph Kehzie, James Saye Kadameh and Francis Maweah.

During the first week, I had 45 students in 10th grade. By the second week, the number had soared to 93 students in one class. Students went to Bob Paye, the principal and asked him to transfer them to my class because there was a teacher available everyday teaching their colleagues. They cramped into my classroom and covered every available space, with some standing by the door or standing against the blackboard. I was overwhelmed at first but when I found out that the students were eager to learn, I accommodated them. In that class, one could drop a pin and hear its sound. No behavior problem!

Are our classrooms like that today? What about cell phones in the classroom? student behavior? dress code? These are environmental factors that affect student learning. Where we teach matters!

Finally, the issue of assessment – tools used to find out the outcome of instruction. The national curriculum prepared by the Ministry of Education for K-12 schools has specific standards or benchmarks to be accomplished after each course of instruction. The ministry, through WAEC, administers an examination for high school leavers based on the national curriculum. The University of Liberia also uses the content of the curriculum to draw its entrance exam for potential first-year college students.

This year’s university entrance exam was out-sourced to a private consultant, James Dorbor Jallah, who dismissed the old admission process as one fraught with “bribery” and “who know you” syndrome. To end that credibility problem and “restore public confidence in the university admission process,” he told the VOA news (voanews.com, August 27, 2013) that he was hired by University of Liberia President Dr. Emmett Dennis to administer the entrance exam and begin to “lay the foundation for the university to conduct exams and remove negative perception from the process.”

But it ended in a massive failure of 25,000 students and sparked angry reactions from all over the world as far as Australia. An irate President asked: “Why are the students of the system not performing to the standards expected?” (Allfrica.com, August 28, 2013). This thrust Liberia’s education sector to the level of “national emergency,” “national imperative,” “national embarrassment,” “national indictment” and “mass murder.” Blames have already been laid at the doorstep of helpless students yearning for education – they have no basic grasp of English or mechanics.

Not so fast! Rewind and look at the role the university played in this crisis. The director of testing center was dismissed and replaced by a new examiner. The old test bank was purged to give way to questions solicited from testing committee members with a new passing grade set by the University Senate.

Unlike the old test items that had a mixture of multiple choice, word problems and essays, the new items were all multiple choice questions done on a scantron.  Several questions come to mind in a situation like this. Who constructed the items? Were the items pretested in high schools to find their reliability and validity? Were the items testing student learning outcomes for high school leavers or were the items testing student readiness for college work?

According to Professors George Flahn and Fredrick Gbegbe (my former professors), reliability is established when the same test produces the same result after several administrations. If this year’s test is re-administered next year and produces the same massive failure result, then the test has established its reliability – consistency in measuring student unreadiness to enter college.

Validity, on the other hand, is tied to the aims and objectives of the test. Why the test? The goal is to measure specific skills and cognitive level of would-be college students. Can a battery of multiple choice questions establish the reliability (constancy) and validity (accuracy) of university entrance exam? Did the University err in this area?

To prevent another massive failure in 2014, UL Testing Center has to develop a new test bank in collaboration with Teachers College. The goals of the test must be clearly articulated in a brochure for would-be students. Student teachers in training may be required to construct test items and pretested in high schools during practice teaching or while taking testing and evaluation course (EDUC 307) as a project. Results obtained from the field may be brought to the classroom for item analysis so as to establish test reliability and validity. During class discussion, all ambiguities, cultural biases, distracters, and wordiness may be sanitized from the language of the test. This was what we did when we were students.

Finally, the university should establish an outreach program with high school principals to exchange information about university expectations and what skills students need for college work.

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