One of the most daunting encounters every Ghanaian child faces in his or her early teens is the dreaded BECE. The Basic Education Certificate Examinations is the rite of passage for students from Junior High School to Senior High School. It has a “do or die” feeling to it. Teachers hound you from the moment you get to JHS 3, your parents constantly pray for you and the nation’s attention is focused on you when you eventually sit down for the exams.
Before the English paper on Monday, all the cocoons in this amazon relocate to your stomach. They itch and scratch until the proverbial butterflies start flapping their wings in your tummy. It is a nauseating feeling which actually gets some vomiting and in some cases, peeing on themselves. Everyone has a story to share about their BECE experience. It is either the nights spent cramming with other candidates or the prayer camps attended which ends with gifts of pens dripping with anointed Borges Olive Oil. It might be how your parents were suddenly super nice to you in the days running up to the exams or how you wish your last name started with the same alphabet as the class “shark”. The stories might be different but one of the most commonly experienced phenomenon is “apor”.
BECE was the unknown and trudging into it without any physical fortification, in addition to the spiritual one, was like going to war without any armor. More appropriately, it was like going to war with an enemy you lived your whole life being told was going to defeat you hands down and still not finding a thing or two about how to beat him before battle day.
Having an inkling into what kinds of questions we were going to face was a must for some of us so we called on those who attended relatively better off schools for apor. Apor is an examination leak by the way. The kids attending Montessori and International schools were our go to guys. Rumor always had it that they had access to apor so we befriended them even though they were usually uppity and snobbish. We scoured their highly coveted mock exams papers for exam leaks and were utterly shocked when we eventually sat down for the exams.
Sometimes you were lucky and an entire mock exam of a private school was repeated word for word in the BECE exams. Sometimes you got not more than a “section A” question which carried one mark coincidentally appearing in both the BECE and the school’s exam.
Finding “Apor” was like chasing the Holy Grail. Almost everyone either did search for it, find it or at least contemplated using it at some point in his or her educational journeys. The students caught up in this year’s scandal are only continuing something we all engaged in and help sustain into perpetuity. So when I hear those loud noises chastising WAEC, I smirk. I smirk because I smell sanctimony.
Truth is, at one point or another, we indulged in a subtle or glaring case of examination malpractice. It was either at the basic level, senior high school or even the university. Even with the CCTV cameras fixed on us, some found a way to “dab”.
Some schools have a tradition of upholding the highest sense of integrity when it comes to this issue. Wesley Girls, arguably the best school in Ghana (coming from an Odade3, you would have to take it as gospel) is rumored to run a penitentiary like system when it is time for WASSCE exams. Everything coming in is filtered and scanned for exam leaks. Everything, even food and letters from boyfriends. Despite this insistence on the highest of moral standards, the school still churns out some of the best students in the country with the best student in the entirety of West Africa in the last two years coming from the school.
A majority of the schools around have a “don’t ask, don’t tell policy”. The teachers and administrators turn a blind eye to this issue. And then there are those who actively support their students in this acts. The ones where teachers answer the leaked questions for the students and charge them a cedi or two to make photocopies of leaked papers in their (teachers) possession.
Cheating in examinations has been normalized to the point where it never occurs to us that we are engaging in something illicit. Not for a second do we realize that it is an immoral fact. In fact, students brag about the sophisticated schemes they come up with to cheat and outwit examination invigilators. Some parents aid their kids by purchasing leaked questions for them and tipping off invigilators.
The root of this is hard to explain. It will be misguided to say this is intrinsic in our culture. It is only human nature to want to gain unfair advantage. That is why men institutionalize patriarchy, white cyclist Lance Armstrong doped and black sprinter Marion Jones did same. Heck, even Ivy League students have been caught cheating on several instances. Cheating the natural order of things has become the way of man since Adam and Eve (or the Caveman, whichever rocks your boat). The biggest issue is whether or not your allow it to flourish and eventually institutionalize it.
WAEC has been embroiled in such drama and disgrace for a long time now. If my memory serves me right, I answered two different sets of BECE questions from 2002 (or 2003) because the entire papers written that year were cancelled. In 2012, the elective mathematics questions leaked a full two weeks before exam day. There are several of such incidents. The question then becomes “who leaked it”? Which vanguard of the exams council slept on duty and allowed the papers to go through natural selection overnight, materialize limbs and carry itself out of the safe?
The buck always stops with leadership. Until there is some shakeup of sorts at the top, this will continue occurring. Someone either loses his or her job or no one is going to take this issue seriously. As it is with us, this story would be discussed vehemently on all media spaces for days and once another fiasco pops up, it is “on to the next one”!
This repeated failure to make the processes and products of our exams sacrosanct is most likely one of the reasons why WASSCE grades are not held in the same regard as the International Baccalaureates or the SATs. Maybe it is time to outsource the examination process to a private body motivated by profits and the need to maintain integrity. It might sound ridiculous entrusting the examination procedures to a money making entity but once you have a basic understanding of how the free market of ideas, goods and services work, you will appreciate what I am driving at.
Take the example of the SATs. It is the most widely recognized entrance exams (for want of a better word) in the USA. It is run by “CollegeBoard”, a private body which has for over a hundred and sixteen (116 years) been in the business of managing college entrance exams. The SATs are not the only exams modeled, moderated and managed by CollegeBoard. The list includes CLEPs and AP exams. CollegeBoard has over the years managed to attain so much respect due to its high standards of integrity and quality that a majority of the schools in the USA (which if you did not know has some of the best schools in the world) accepting its exams.
As is always the case, the free market of exam councils allowed for an alternative, the ACT. About 30 years after the SATs were introduced, the ACT entered the game in 1959 to compete with SAT in this market of examination. Today, students have a choice between the SAT and ACT, both incentivized by the demands for high professional standards of the colleges they serve and motivated by the monies they receive from students.
Just like in any human institution, lapses occur and what you could call a “leak” happens. But this is due to the fact that SATs are also written internationally and as a result of time lags, people in other parts of the world write it after Americans have written theirs hence the leak. A privatized exams scheme in Ghana will not be beset with such problems
But since we claim to be socialists and the mention of privatization gets some freaked out even though they are beneficiaries of dubious governmental privatization, we might consider scrapping exam altogether. It is indisputable that exams has never been an accurate measure of a student’s worth. Three hours behind a paper does not accurately capture what a student has learned over years. A more comprehensive scheme of assessing a student’s 3 years of studies should include his or her transcript over the period, activities undertaken outside the classroom and a statement of intent or interview.
The strain on educational resources makes the substituting of exams for an alternative assessment scheme quixotic. Our best bet is strengthening what we have and we start by jettisoning WAEC which has shown its inability to uphold the highest standards over and over again. We drop WAEC and seek private companies which respond to market incentives for professionalism and integrity.