External exam system again under threat
One of the few real achievements of the pre-2010 government was the creation of a system of Independent external assessment [ZNO] as the sole determining factor for entry to higher educational institutions. This was a major step in fighting rampant corruption in education and towards bringing Ukraine into line with other countries.
Dmytro Tabachnyk, appointed Education Minister in March 2010, and again following the last elections despite his immense unpopularity, has been against the system from the outset and it has over the last three years came under threat. Attempts to undermine the examinations and add other elements were unfortunately supported by many deans and lecturers, with the opportunities for corrupt arrangements seeming a likely reason.
In recent days the Deputy Speaker of the Verkhovna Rada, Ihor Kalyetnik (Communist Party) stated publically that ZNO needs to be abolished. His statement was condemned by the Head of the Parliamentary Committee on Education Lilia Hrinevych who said that such calls were lobbying corrupt interests. She stressed that any such plans needed professional discussion with the involvement of all interested groups in society.
Olha Strelyok from the civic movement OPORA writes that at present the ZNO system is coming under fire from both supporters and detractors. She suggests that supporters do not realize how their criticism is playing into the hands of those wishing to discredit the examinations.
She says that there are two main reasons for the failings of the Ukrainian system for standardizing the testing:
insufficient funding for the Ukrainian Centre for Education Quality Assessment;
the lack of an effective lobbyist able to push the system with the Education Ministry.
One of the consequences of the lack of funding is that the Ukrainian Centre for Education Quality Assessment is not carrying out one of its vital tasks, that of monitoring quality. In the initial stages the exams were mandatory meaning that they could serve as a quality indicator throughout the country. The Ministry then made them mandatory only for people wishing to enter higher education, negating their value in quality assessment.
The lack of funding also jeopardizes the quality of the exams, since the Centre is increasingly turning away from open tasks which require individual marking for which the Centre lacks the money.
The number of subjects for testing has also been reduced for the same reason. The OPORA representative writes that “ZNO progress as a system for assessing level of knowledge has effectively been suspended, Along with the financial component, the proper development of the external examination system is dependent on the management of the Ukrainian Centre for Education Quality Assessment and the political will of the central authority under whose sphere of influence it falls. After the change in Education Minister in 2010 and Director of the Centre in 2011, the standardization of the testing has effectively not development as a direction in educational assessment.” She mentions the reduction in the number of tasks set; cases where tests from previous years have been repeated; as well as mock assessments as evidence that the system has not been properly tested as a means of providing an independent assessment of knowledge.
Despite all the system’s failings, it remains vital in creating fair conditions for entering higher education. Olha Strelyuk calls it effectively the only reform since Independence which continues to serve its main function, that being to fight corruption in higher education and ensure equal opportunities for all.
At present, all but one law proposing amendments to the Law on Higher Education proposes reducing the importance of ZNO and introducing a university-specific system of additional points. Deans claim that this is needed since ZNO does not make it possible to fully assess students’ abilities and choose the best students. This, the author says, is ingenuous since almost all Ukrainian institutes draw the dividing line at a point meaning that they accept C-grade students who are then excluded after the first exam session. One must therefore, she says, question the motives of those trying to reinstate the system of internal entrance exams.
Whether the possibility of entering higher education without corruption in 2014 will continue depends on a number of factors:
the ability of the Ukrainian Centre for Education Quality Assessment to demonstrate the effectiveness and progress in the existing ZNO system;
the political will of the Education Ministry, Cabinet of Ministers and Verkhovna Rada in adopting a new Law on Higher Education without reinstating internal university exams;
increase in funding for the Ukrainian Centre for Education Quality Assessment;