In Sierra Leone, we've just received our first ever set of public exam results and I'm really excited by what they show about the progress we're making. The headline is that after just two years with us, 99% of our Junior Secondary School students achieved the grades they need to go onto Senior Secondary School.
Here's the background.
Back in July/August 2017, the 97 students who made up our oldest cohort of Junior Secondary School (JSS) students sat the Basic Education Certificate Examination (BECE). (When we've opened schools we've typically only been enrolling one or two grades at a time, so in future years that cohort will be bigger as more students start to come through our system.)
The BECE is an important staging post for students in Sierra Leone, marking the end of universal basic education and acting as a gateway into Senior Secondary School or technical and vocational study. Students sit papers in a number of core and elective subjects. Each paper is marked on a 1 to 7 scale with 1 being the highest. A subject pass requires a score of 6 or better. A student's overall result is based on their scores in six subjects: the four core subjects of English, Maths, Science and Social Studies, plus the best score from each of two sets of electives. To be awarded the BECE, students must achieve at least 4 subject passes, including at least one of either English or Maths. But to go onto Senior Secondary School, the Government of Sierra Leone has stipulated that students must achieve 5 subject passes, including at least one of English or Maths. (Those with only 4 passes are eligible to go onto technical and vocational study.)
I don't know what the national picture looks like for this year yet, and even finding recent historical benchmarks is quite hard (this World Bank report has numbers for 2000-2005, and this UNESCO report for 2005-2011). I'll have more to say about these results in due course once that national picture is clearer. But at first glance it seems our students have done remarkably well.
- Of the 97 students who took the exam, all 97 passed and 96 achieved the Senior Secondary entry benchmark of 5 or more passes. Historically, the pass rate nationally has been between 40 and 60%;
- Girls evenly matched boys, not just in hitting the Senior Secondary benchmark but in their overall scores. Historically, pass rates for girls have lagged boys by 10 percentage points;
- Performance in the core subjects was very strong, especially English and Maths. Every single student passed English and all but one passed Maths. Nationally, pass rates in these subjects have typically been much lower - in 2011, for example, less than a quarter passed Maths;
- The proportion of students achieving higher grades in the core subjects is particularly striking. 79% of our students achieved a credit in Maths (a score of 4 or above). Historically, the figure has typically been below 8% and in 2011 it was less than 3%.
First and foremost, I want to say well done to every single one of our students for the hard work they put into preparing for these exams. It's hard to imagine just how disrupted Junior Secondary schooling has been for this cohort. They should have begun JSS in September 2014, just as the devastating Ebola epidemic forced all schools in Sierra Leone to remain closed. When they were finally able to start JSS in April 2015, they had to deal with a truncated academic calendar for JSS1 and JSS2, with six terms' worth of material compressed into four in order to make up for lost time. Everyone who sat this examination deserves credit for not letting that disruption get in the way of their determination to pursue their education.
Second, congratulations to all those who got their 5 passes, and commiserations to the one student who just missed out: I know that you did so by the narrowest of margins and despite passing both English and Maths. I hope that whatever our students thought when they first found out their results - whether they were thrilled or disappointed - they will remember the words of our school creed: however well we do, we always strive to do better.
Third, that applies to Rising as an organisation too. These results are an important milestone for us. It's the first time any of our students have sat public exams and while we know from independent evaluations that our students seem to be making good progress compared to their peers in other schools, these exams are still an important test of whether we are delivering the quality education our students and their parents expect. I'm therefore delighted to see so many of our students do well. It's particularly encouraging given that these students had barely been with us two years when they took the exam, and given that their literacy and numeracy levels when they first enrolled were typically well below grade level. Nevertheless, I'm still looking forward to diving into this data to understand what we can be doing better. For instance, while pass rates are really important (especially for our students and their families), as a school network it's more informative for us to understand our "value-added": the extent to which students perform better at the BECE than you would predict given their incoming learning levels (as shown, for example, by their scores in the primary school leavers' exam, the NPSE). That's something we'd be very interested in looking at, but it's tricky to do with the data currently available. (Any researchers who want to help us out: call me!) There are also some interesting variations in performance across subjects that we need to understand and reflect on.
In short, lots to think about and work on, but a great piece of news with which to start 2018.
A big congratulations again to our students, and a big thank you to all our teachers, school leaders, curriculum writers and the whole Rising team for the hard work they put into helping them achieve these great results.