x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Hysteria in Egypt's streets over English exam failures

Annual English test in Egypt's high schools that is vital for educational progress catches pupils unaware with idiomatic phrases

A man consoles his daughter outside a school in Cairo after the English exam.
A man consoles his daughter outside a school in Cairo after the English exam.

CAIRO // On Monday, amidst the car horns and chatter, the sound of broken dreams echoed through Egypt's streets. Young girls fainted in the arms of their sobbing mothers. Fathers screamed with rage, their faces contorted into grotesque expressions of indignation. In some areas, ambulances were called in to treat victims of shock.

The source of all this madness: the English test in the thanawaya aama, Egypt's annual nation-wide high school examination. "They were suffering. The girls were crying, they were screaming. It was so difficult. All of them were suffering," said Ahmed Ghoneim, a high school English teacher at Imbaba Secondary School outside Cairo, whose telling of the sorrowful scene inside the examination room might have recalled a motorway accident or a vicious murder.

Despite the pandemonium, the reasons behind all this angst may say as much about the educational system's ambitions for reform as it says about the system's flaws. Under the leadership of Ahmed Zaki Badr, Egypt's new minister of education, grade school curricula is entering a period of transition to prepare pupils for a more critical thinking-based approach to learning. The reforms were meant to replace a much-criticised system of learning-by-numbers that relies on repetition and memorisation to prepare pupils for the single examination that determines their educational fates. But for those pupils who were caught unprepared on Monday, the reforms came as an unsettling surprise. High-level students of English apparently never expected to be challenged with idiomatic phrases or imposing texts about the majestic but endangered eagle or volcanic ash clouds.

Why all the fuss over a high school test? Under Egypt's highly centralised system of instruction, the thanawaya aama has the final say on where a student can attend university, even what he or she will be allowed to study. A student's grades during the school year do not enter into such calculations, and only those pupils who score in the highest percentile can enter Egypt's public medical or engineering schools.

In short, the tests represent many students' last best hope for a free, high-quality advanced degree. "This is the problem: the students spend all their years in secondary education practising for exams that are based only on specific models," said Sami Nassar, the dean of the institute of educational studies at Cairo University, who described Egyptian education as indoctrination. "So if the exam strays from these specific models, they cannot answer it."

Given the incredible pressure centred on a few critical testing days, the dramatic reactions are somewhat understandable. Parents who send their children to public school often pay high fees for outside tutoring to help them study for the exams. According to the 2005 United Nations Development Programme's Egypt Human Development Report, 58 per cent of families sought private tutoring - often from their children's own teachers who moonlight on the side for extra cash. Many pupils - and some teachers - frequently skip school to focus on studying and tutoring for the thanawaya aama.

It is a system that is crying out for reform, said education experts. But in the field of education, an overnight remedy is hardly the answer. "The new developments in the exams are not concomitant with development in the educational process, in how the schools teach the students and how they train them to answer questions in such exams. So they moved to a new examination without changing the teaching methods in the schools," said Ilham Abdel Hamid, a professor of curriculum and teaching methodology who is also at Cairo University's institute of educational studies.

"The objectives may be noble but the means are not appropriate," she said. "The minister wants to end all the problems with education instantaneously, to promptly end the private tutoring and the absence from schools. This doesn't work. There should be a plan for a year and the students should be trained for the new system." Following Monday's outrage, the national centre for examinations in the ministry of education released a statement yesterday denying that the test questions had been taken from outside the approved curriculum. But that assertion did little to prevent the schoolhouse opprobrium from reaching the halls of Egypt's parliament.

Mustafa al Gindi, an independent member of Egypt's People's Assembly, tried on Tuesday to make an "urgent statement" about the difficulty of the English exam. His comments were blocked, however, by the speaker of parliament, who called such concerns a "technical issue" for the ministry of education. Even Zakaria Azmi, a member of parliament and the chief of staff for Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's president, called for a "redistribution" of the English exam grades.

Such a move would be welcomed by legions of angry and confused parents and pupils, for whom the unexpected exam "improvements" seemed to dash bright hopes of a scholarly future. Tamer Yousuf, 18, said he had prepared for a test based solely on the grammar and vocabulary he had revised in his ministry-issued textbook. Instead, he struggled through an impossible set of translations followed by scenes of "screaming, weeping and fainting" outside his school.

"The people in charge of thanawaya aama deliberately made this year's exam difficult," Mr Yousuf said. "Of course we were treated unjustly because my colleagues and I completed all the exams from the previous years with our teachers, and in the most difficult exam among them we could score 23 out of 25." @Email:mbradley@thenational.ae