Has Exam Cheating in Kenya Been Eradicated?

This post is in response to some interesting events that have happened in Kenya with regards to examination results

First lets be clear, I think what the CS has achieved is commendable and laud his efforts

But …..

First a preamble

Kenya’s education system (academics) is defined largely by its two transition methods

a) Transition from primary to secondary school education schools

b) Transition from secondary education schools to University colleges and institutions

Previously there was a Primary education followed by two tiers of Secondary education labeled ‘O level’ and ‘A level’ before a 3 year University program making a 7-4-2-3 academic program for those who managed to successfully get through all stages at their first attempt. Of course there were some specialist courses at the University that required more years such as fields of medicine where the courses required 5 years to complete.

Prior to this system at the break of independence, Primary Education also had two tiers, while secondary education also had two tiers before University college but the number of years before college were much fewer.

The current system was a result of elaborate research initiated by the National government in response to growing concerns  that the academic model of the time had become obsolete or more precisely did not serve well the growing needs of the country.

The current system is an 8-4-4 system in which the first 8-4 years are geared towards ostensibly nurturing the younger minds to be more self reliant with practical life skills before going into higher education for those who qualify.

Of course like any system, there are now new concerns that the system overloads the students, quality is low and other concerns or complaints about the inadequacy of the system.

In this post I am not going to go into the merits, failures or successes or in fact any discussion about any of the academic models in Kenya or elsewhere

This article only takes a brief look into a practice and in fact a culture that crept in, first in very little bits, but eventually consumed the academic circle, and that is the culture of Exam Cheating

Why is Exam Cheating prevalent

The learning model in Kenya, (as in most “developing or merging” countries) is fashioned along the same model for access to opportunities. It is NOT based on a collaborative or cumulative model, but is based on a gated/fenced access, with a throttled pass model. Let me explain

When ordinarily a human wakes up there is one thing generally guaranteed, they can breathe freely and never have to think about quotas or allocations. As such there are no fences or access concerns. If however we crammed people into a space ship and sent them into outer space, we will suddenly need to develop hierarchies that determine who has priority access to which resources and that will include even the most basic or fundamental resources required for survival. This is the gating/fencing access am referring to.

So lets get back to planet earth and specifically, Kenya. Our history and present circumstances are largely influenced by the impact of colonial  occupation, and the subsequent turn of events after we gained independence. Do not get me wrong, am not blaming the colonials, but we have to acknowledge that most of present day Kenya revolves around western or colonial influence.

Back to the discussion, yes we had local kings, chiefs, warlords, and associated structure before the arrival of colonials. And am sure pre-colonial history will show the gated resource management. When the colonials invaded Africa, they fashioned there own type of gated access to resources. Among these gated mechanisms was the hierarchy within Administrative structure they implemented in which they installed persons they deemed loyal or at least somewhat compliant with their model. And then implement systems that furthered their perception of social norms. So the academic institutions were fashioned to catapult natives from ignorance into socially acceptable humans.

At this point I fast forward the discussion

Our human nature quickly outgrows any system we design, and therefore natural selection using such systems reaches saturation very quickly. What is the point? Well before saturation, its easy to use or deploy a system to naturally select qualifiers for access to resources, but however, once saturation is achieved, the only way to provide gated access to resources is by appointed or select “delegates” in turn, using some conjured mechanism of selection. Note that the selection of delegates is in itself another conjured mechanism.

In short, we can quickly move from a free for all access to resources, to a heavily gated, resource access system in just a few short moves. Take for instance the circumstances of people in war torn regions Allepo Syria, South Sudan, etc. But I digress

Colonial Kenya, and post independence Kenya, resources and opportunities that initially belonged to all Kenyans and were readily accessible instantly became limited resources and opportunities, that could only be accessed either as favours from the Administration or through some system or qualification process. Initially the system appeared to work, but gradually the majority of the population continually got equal access and opportunity to qualify but unfortunately the resource pool remained and todate remains stagnant or in fact is shrinking. The resource pool is includes formal employment in government, corporations or businesses, access to land or farming, opportunities for innovation, business etc

When a qualification system is saturated the it has to undergo restructuring. It can either become more restrictive e.g setting of tougher qualification criteria but which are usually inconsistent or out of sync with ultimate goals or benefits or the systems gets replaced entirely. Unfortunately governments are slow evolving creatures, therefore cannot change quickly enough to adapt, whereas people will naturally move into survival mode when faced with challenges turning misfortune into opportunity.

I would like at this juncture to state that the academic and opportunity models in Kenya is ridiculously absurd. Instead of focus on creating more resources such as wealth, expanded opportunity etc, we focus all our attention on establishing bigger or more elaborate fences and gates and the associated personnel to man these fences/gates. Phrases such as “utanguka mtihani” or “hutaweza hiyo kazi”, “huyo jamaa alishindwa” are the hallmark of the gated/fenced mindset resulting from this model. Yes its okay to admit that you have used such or similar phrases often

But again lets get back to the story on hand

If its not clear, we have a severe shortage of  (or perhaps debilitating restriction of access to ) resources in the country. The system of access to these resources, is through a limiting and limited gating/fencing off process and associated gate keeping mentality ( the wheeler-dealers, brokers, armed guards, cronies, relatives etc in higher office). Under these circumstances, any objective, fair and open qualification system is not able to fairly and objectively select qualified access to the resources, because either the system will get overloaded with qualified people, or setting up tougher qualification criteria succeed in locking out majority including well qualified and better suited persons, and the tough criteria does not necessarily reflect the required commitment or needs for the opportunities etc.

Based on these challenges people adapt, and unscrupulous characters take advantage of these gaps to create alternative or corrupt channels, that are far much easier to engage and work in, with instant and in many cases gratifying results. Over time these channels become networks and evolve into cultures and social norms. In this case, the networks involve the examiners, educators, institutions, security, storage and transport, parents and the students. Each and everyone of these players has benefited one way or another from exam cheating.

So we now reflect on two “successes” – It has been reported that the ‘surprise’ and early announcement of results is considered a success in that the corruption cartels were not able to influence these results

It is also reported that there were fewer “higher scoring” marks per student even in schools that have a record of performing well in the past.

So the questions are

  1. How is poor performance of students considered a mark of success?
  2. Secondly, if ambush works this year and maybe the next, how is ambush considered to be a long term measure of, or indeed a strategy for success?
  3. Has the problem really been solved or did we create a wormhole that we perhaps successfully sneaked into?

We will await a comprehensive audit, but I can say this, its possible the networks could have been subdued, or were not as pronounced this year, but exam cheating is not an issue that will be resolved in one year or regime, simply because everything else ( opportunities, resources, networks) remains in the same state.

You will note that I will not even go into the discussion on quality of teachers, curriculum, study hours, extra learning tuition, costs, workload, (and hyuk hyuk hyuk Staddy 1 laptops and electricity). All these are topics on their own.

There is simply no cause for celebration

But in closing I have the following reflections to ponder on

  • In advanced countries, students are usually allowed to carry a “cheat sheet” into an examination center
  • We do not encourage “cramming” but yet expect students to “cram” for the exams
  • An experienced professional will always refer to a guide-book or instructions manual

Over to you folks

7 comments on “Has Exam Cheating in Kenya Been Eradicated?

  1. I return to this thread to tackle the first issue I raised that has been addressed by the Matiang’i reforms. The problem of outright cheating in exams. There were 4 major ways in which the exams were “stolen” outright.

    1) The exams were not in secure custody. The worst manifestation of this problem by far was in the 2015 exams. In this particular sitting all the exam papers without exception were leaked into the public domain. We had the papers all over WhatsApp & Facebook. A bigger problem was that the guys at the ministry knew that the exams had been leaked but opted to bury their heads in the sand. The issue of leaking of exam papers is not a new one but it has progressively gotten to unmanageable levels.

    2) The setting of exams was also based on a flawed system that encouraged cheating. In the past KNEC didn’t have an independent panel employees who set the national examinations, they relied on teachers from schools. The teachers of the top performing schools in a particular subject would send a sample list of “suggested questions”. The KNEC would then pick questions that would end up in the national exams at random. The teachers of the top performing schools knew each other and often shared the questions they submitted to KNEC. With this unfair advantage, their schools would cement their places at the top of the rankings since those are questions that would find their way into assessment tests. In the past it was fairly difficult to make use of this sort of collusion but with the ubiquity of electronic communications, the status quo was untenable. The surprise that KNEC pulled on the candidates was to discard the set exams then derive the exams from the previous national exams. This move disoriented the cheats.

    3) The third method was while sitting for the exams. A paper would be given to the subject teacher for their own analysis. This is what Sossion was calling the “interrogation” of the exam paper. While in the past it was useful in giving the teachers a grasp on the years exams, it was later abused. The subject teachers in a school would take a copy, work out the answers then send to the students the answers via the invigilators. It was a lot more difficult last year because KNEC didn’t give the teachers copies of the exam. However, one still managed to get a copy of the exams, went & hid somewhere in a bush, worked out the answers and sent them to the invigilator via whatsapp. Unfortunately for the teacher, the phones of the invigilators were confiscated, that scheme was nipped in the bud.

    4) The fourth & most expensive option was to send a bribe to KNEC officials to change the result of the students. The student may have scored a mean grade of C- for instance, but upon payment of a bribe, the grade would miraculously change to a clean A. There are several students who did that. There is an example of a student who was consistently 3rd from bottom at his school (A national school in Nairobi), he surprisingly scored a mean grade of A that consisted of perfect As in all subjects. He “earned” a place in the highly coveted Medicine class, he dropped out of the course within the first 3 months then got “demoted” to electrical engineering, he once again failed to make an impression and was demoted to Bachelor of Arts in History, still couldn’t hack it & decided to quit university education altogether. This was resolved by the reconstitution of KNEC.

    As I stated the reforms are just beginning, but it is an encouraging start.


  2. Admin,

    I am back, I will tackle the 2 articles that you’ve referred to first. The first is an article that was penned by an observer who says although the education system has been run down, changes do not happen overnight and therefore he is skeptical of the results. All I have to say is that I am also of the opinion that changes don’t happen overnight and these exam results are just the starting point. I would however not cast aspersions at the results on that basis. The setting, management & marking of the exams was so rotten that an exam that has a modicum of control would result in drastic changes in the grades. The 2015 exams were so bad to the extent that the entire exam was leaked out before the students sat for a single exam. And as usual, we had thousands of As & A-
    I however have a problem with some of the consolidated grade wise totals, some of them have different totals altogether. For instance, 2 sets of reports on the gender-wise result distribution have different numbers of enrollment figures with one set indicating more boys enrolling and another indicating more girls enrolling. It seems like there was a hurry to release the results to the extent that some checks on the reports were not done.

    Relating to the KNUT protest. I have a very low opinion of KNUT & the role they play in the education sector. I daresay they are part of the education cartel. Why? Their progression of results had shown the number of As increasing year on year. This would make them clamour for promotions of the teachers involved which in turn increases the salary of the promoted teachers & ultimately swells the coffers of KNUT! That is the same reason why they have been fighting Bridge international schools. While bridge enrolls a large number of pupils especially from underprivileged backgrounds, the teachers are not KNUT members & therefore they are missing out on remittances. Bridge international also publish their own text books and therefore the same cartels are not minting the money they would have if Bridge were purchasing the textbooks from them.

    Back to KNUT. The issues they raised were with the exams included the “moderation” of results after marking. This is a process that had been abused to the extent that it became a “pay for grades” scheme.
    Second, they claimed that the grading was flawed, in that maths & the sciences were being graded in a similar way to humanities. Well, I may try to sympathise with that point of view but it is not entirely convincing because.

    1) The questions were not new ones, the 2016 exams recycled questions from between 2001-2014, some papers were entire duplicates of past papers. So, if a duplicated paper had a median score of 70% in the past & the 2016 it drops to under 50% should they have lowered the grading?
    2) All who have gone through the secondary school system know that *all* subjects are graded in exactly the same way. For instance anything below 15% was an E. It is only in the final exams that the scoring became subjective & fluid. And besides, the grading affects everyone.

    Third, KNUT made the entirely unsubstantiated claim that the marking was simply meant to make an example out of the 2016 class. Well, we’ll know this sooner rather than later. The previous result had the direct effect of punishing hard work. It had thousands of As & the drop out rate in the competitive courses was simply because a lot of the students who purportedly had As were too dumb to follow the lecturers. Kenyans have been saying all along that the graduates being produced were half baked, the reason is because the bulk of them didn’t deserve to be in the courses they were pursuing in the first place.

    The other unintended consequence of flooding the university courses with undeserving students was that if the failure rate was too high, the university senate would summon the lecturer to explain why too many students are failing. The senate then views it as a failure on the part of the lecturer while in actual fact the students just cannot grasp the stuff. So, what is the solution to this conundrum? The lecturers resorted to inflating the scores of their students & making them to pass where they would have otherwise failed. When these students graduate & are released to the labour market, they simply cannot cut it. So, dealing with the problem at the source solves this issue.

    The Matiang’i inspired bloodbath is just a start. We need him to follow it up with other reforms. For instance, the only form of tertiary education that is recognised nowadays is university education. This is because most of the non varsity tertiary institutions have been killed. Kenya Polytechnic, Mombasa Polytechnic & Eldoret polytechnic that used to produce most of the technicians have been converted into universities. Highridge Teachers College, Kenya Science Teachers College have been converted into campuses of Nairobi University. Kenya Technical Teachers College that was set up in Gigiri when it was still a bush is being decommissioned after they discovered that the current value of land in that locality is running into billions. The private institutions that gave the economy a large number of high quality diploma holders have also been converted into “universities”. These include Strathmore, Kenya College of Accountancy aka KCA, Kenya School of Professional Studies. Some third rate institutions like Zetech are also allegedly universities. We are creating many degree holders who are half baked and we don’t have the capacity to absorb them. A properly working education system should be producing a lot more diploma & certificate holders to do the mundane tasks. I will still weigh in on the KCSE thunderbolt later 🙂


  3. Admin,

    This is one issue that is dear to me but due to time constraints I don’t think I can contribute as much as I would like to at this time. I am an 8-4-4 product, I did my KCPE in ’93 & sat for my KCSE in 1997. I went through the private schooling system for the first 4 years at Aga Khan primary (Mombasa) and the rest of my primary schooling at Moi Avenue Primary (Nairobi). It is at around the time that I was going through the primary and secondary education that the education system changed to be the cut throat, exam obsessed system that it has now become.

    I remember in the 80s and 90s, a good mixture of pupils were being admitted to the top tier national schools. It was possible for a pupil from Ziwani to end up at Alliance high, the subsequent problem would be school fees. The system changed so much that when my younger sister who sat for her her KCPE in the 80s managed to secure a slot at one of the top National Schools from Moi Avenue primary, the teachers were shocked to the extent that they thought that they had Moi Educational Centre misspelled.

    I remember that in the 80s and early 90s As were so rare that one could comfortably qualify for medicine by scoring a mean grade B. Only that you had to perform extremely well in the relevant 4 subject cluster. Between the early 2000s and 2015 grade As had become so common (and meaningless) that to qualify for a coveted course like medicine through the regular intake, you had to have a grade A that consisted of a clean sweep of all the 7 subjects. So, if your result slip looked like A,A,A,A,A,A,A-, you were out of the running for Medicine. What happened? I will weigh in on my reasons in a subsequent post, but in brief my reasons are:

    1) Outright Cheating
    2) Rampant drilling for exams in ‘top schools’
    3) Exam obsession
    4) Flawed education system

    Each of them deserves a post of its own. But for now, let me take off 🙂


    • Siguda

      This is an excellent anecdote, I cant wait to see you pen the rest of it.

      You are right, many of these issues require full blown analysis, even this article would have been several pages long.

      We will however be addressing various pieces as time allows, In the meantime I will be posting other reactions as I come across them


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