ABU DHABI // Scores obtained by young Emiratis in a crucial end-of-school English examination have risen for the first time in five years.
If the improvement continues it will have profound implications for federal university budgets, which are eaten into by the cost of providing remedial English lessons for first-year students before they can begin their degree courses.
Results in the Cepa, or Common English Proficiency Examination, have improved in all emirates and among both boys and girls, although girls remain stronger.
Students who score at least 180 in the Cepa can go straight to university degree courses. Entrants who score a minimum of 150 but less than 180 spend at least a year studying remedial English, starving the universities’ degree programmes of funding.
The average score this year has increased from 160 to 163.5, an improvement that the Cepa supervisor Rachel Lange described as “really significant”.
“The difference between 160 and 163.5 is actually much greater than the difference between 136.5 and 140 or 206.5 and 210,” she said. “These 3.5 points in the 160 range are the equivalent of about a term of foundation English. That’s exciting.”
The better scores also mean 10 times more students than in 2003 are ready for direct entry into university. “The number of students who score above 180 … has been steadily increasing since Cepa began in 2003,” Ms Lange said. “If this trend continues, the universities could start eliminating English foundation programmes in seven to 10 years.”
The number of students who go straight to university has risen from 383, or 3 per cent, in 2003 to 3,482, or 20 per cent.
“I feel fairly confident that this pool of candidates will continue to grow, which means federal universities will be able to devote more of their total budgets to funding undergraduate studies and less to remedial courses,” said Ryan Gjovig, head of Cepa.
Federal entry scores are still considerably lower than those at many private universities. A direct entry score of 180 is equivalent to an IELTS examination score of 5.0 to 5.5. Universities such as the American University of Sharjah require a 6.5 IELTS score for baccalaureate study and Heriot Watt Dubai requires a 6.0.
Of the country’s 10 education zones, the Western Region of Abu Dhabi produced the largest gains, seven points higher on average in 2013 than in 2012, according to Mr Gjovig, though the report also showed there were fewer applicants this year indicating a possible decline in the lower level range of applicants.
However, he said the overall results suggest the reform programmes of the public school sector, particularly those of Adec, the Abu Dhabi Education Council, are working.
“Before now we’d seen no rise in the last five to six years and this is not just in private schools as I first thought.
“Most of the gains were actually seen in the government school sector, which is obviously very good news for the entire nation.
This seems to be evidence that the educational reform efforts of the Ministry of Education, Adec, the Knowledge and Human Development Authority in Dubai and others may now be taking hold and bearing fruit.”
He cautioned, however, that “one year does not make a trend”.
“The overall scores had been frustratingly flat for the previous five years. Hopefully, we’ll continue to see additional gains from the 2014 cohort of students.”
While the results appear positive, experts warn they must be looked at with some caution.
Dr Natasha Ridge, head of research at the Sheikh Saud Bin Saqr Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research, said: “I’d like to see similar trends for at least another two years before it can be attributed to the education reforms. One year does not make a trend. I’d be very cautious before talking about ending foundation programmes.”
She added that an increase of three points on the average was “not that significant”.
“It’s also still clear that girls are doing better than boys so that gap is not narrowing in any way.”
In spite of the rise in English levels, maths is still lagging behind across the board.
“My only caveat to the good news this year is that a rise in English ability doesn’t necessarily indicate a rise in ability for all areas of academics,” Mr Gjovig said.
“Student performance on the Cepa maths examination is still quite poor and nearly all Government school applicants show severe deficiencies in basic computational skills such as simple multiplication, division and any calculations involving fractions.
“Hopefully, we’ll see improvements in this area as well in the coming years, but for now, foundation courses at the colleges for maths are still quite necessary.”