x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Students who fail complain about exams

Ministry changed weighting after complaints over December tests, but some students say the course content did not prepare them.

The very best: Luma Dalbah, left, from The Rosary School, Abu Dhabi and Zeina Baalbaki from Al Bateen Scientific Private School, Abu Dhabi, are the top two students in the UAE exam results announced yesterday.
The very best: Luma Dalbah, left, from The Rosary School, Abu Dhabi and Zeina Baalbaki from Al Bateen Scientific Private School, Abu Dhabi, are the top two students in the UAE exam results announced yesterday.

ABU DHABI // Changes in the way Grade 12 examinations were weighted did not work, say some students angry with their results. New-style Grade 12 end-of-term examinations introduced last December had sparked a chorus of complaints from students, parents and teachers who said that the exams, designed to test analytical skills, were too difficult.

The Ministry of Education agreed to decrease the weight of first-term exams in calculating grades, and to better prepare students for end-of-year exams by providing sample questions and study keys. For some students, it does not seem to have helped. Yesterday, the ministry released the final end-of-year results for Grade 12 students, with only 62.6 per cent of students overall passing, leaving many of them dismayed.

Students pursuing the "literary stream" scored lowest, with a pass rate of 51.2 per cent, while students in the "scientific stream" fared better, with 81.6 per cent passing. Aisha al Marri, the director of the assessment and examination department at the MoE, cautioned that these numbers were not final because some students will be allowed to retake exams. The figures include home schoolers and adult learners, whose scores brought the overall averages down. Without them, there would have been a 74.3 per cent pass rate in the literary stream and an 83.2 per cent pass rate in the scientific stream.

Students in state schools outperformed those in private schools teaching the ministry curriculum - by nearly eight percentage points in the "scientific stream", and by a slim margin in the "literary stream". Some students blamed the results on the new exams. Shatha Abdelhakim from Yemen just completed Grade 12 at Al Muntaha High School in Abu Dhabi. A student in the scientific stream, Shatha said she was "shocked and upset" to learn that her overall average is 73 per cent.

She passed - the minimum is 60 per cent - but her mark restricts her options in university. "We've been destroyed by these exam results; our future is just destroyed," she said. "I cannot believe how much our averages have gone down in our final year of school because of exam papers that have nothing to do with what we study in school. What's the use of having books then, if our exam questions come out of nowhere?"

Shatha said many of her peers and classmates had had much higher expectations for their marks. "I know girls who are geniuses who have marks in the 70s and won't stop wailing," she said. Shatha said her mother spent the day crying, lamenting the fact that 12 years of education are being judged by just one set of exam papers. "All this hard work all year long is basically for nothing," said Shatha. "I was planning to study engineering and now I have no idea what I will do."

But not everyone was dismayed. Luma Dalbah, the highest-ranking student in the literary stream, with an overall average of 99.2 per cent, was elated. As one of the best-performing students, she received a congratulatory telephone call from the education minister, Humaid al Qatami. Born and raised in the UAE but with a Jordanian passport, Luma has been a student at the Rosary School in Abu Dhabi since kindergarten.

"We have never had to scold Luma and tell her to go study," said her mother, Amal Ayash. "She has a wonderful sense of responsibility, and never leaves things pending for the next day. She cares about her school lessons, and the fruit of her hard work has culminated with this wonderful call we got from the minister. We are so proud and thankful." Zeina Baalbaki, a Syrian student at Al Bateen Scientific School in Abu Dhabi, also has reason to celebrate. Zeina scored the highest total average for a 12th-grader in the MoE's 2008-2009 examinations. Her 99.4 per cent overall average in the scientific stream exceeded her highest expectations.

"Honestly, while sitting for the exams, I felt that the questions really were strange and unexpected, and depended a lot on understanding and analysing, and not just memorizing what we were taught," said Zeina. "We students weren't used to it, and maybe some of us struggled. I guess I was more pessimistic than I needed to be." Salwa Amin, an Arabic teacher at Al Mawahib Model School in Abu Dhabi said that although the girls at her school did exceedingly well, they could have done better.

"Many of the students scored in the nineties and we are of course very proud of them, but there is no question that there are still some problems with the exam papers," said Ms Amin. "Students left the exams crying, especially after they sat for the chemistry exam, and said that there was not enough time to answer all the questions." "Of course, there is some improvement from last term, perhaps because the students are more prepared, but at the same time, they were not prepared enough."

Ms Amin believes that the sample questions provided to students on a Ministry of Education website were not posted early enough. "Teachers were teaching one thing and testing students one way, then the exam paper would come along and be something completely different. "Students go into the exam hall and are surprised by the new style of questions and then panic and don't do as well as they expect."

A report released last month by the Knowledge and Human Development Authority, the government agency that oversees Dubai schools, suggests that part of the problem with low student outcomes lies with the MoE curriculum itself. "Students are not well prepared for the courses and careers they will follow when they leave school," the report said. It also criticised the literary and scientific streams as being "too narrow in their scope" and do too little to "prepare students for study in higher education."

The report also pointed to other troubling revelations and concluded that schools teaching the MoE curriculum were lagging behind other curriculums used in Dubai schools in key areas such as maths, science and English. klewis@thenational.ae hkhalaf@thenational.ae