Two years ago, Ethiopia revised its secondary school exam, resulting in a 93 percent drop in the pass rate. Since the change, only three percent of candidates have scored 50 percent or higher in order to pass. And this year, 43 percent of regular schools did not have a single candidate that passed. While exposing declining public education quality, this crisis also highlights how political incentives can corrupt exams and may exacerbate poor quality in lower grades.
Politics often influence national exams in straightforward ways, especially during election periods. Governments can manipulate test booklets or grading processes to boost pass rates before elections, using exam inflation as a powerful vote-winning strategy.
But in Ethiopia, where vote-winning isn't really a concern, the story is a bit different. Over fifteen years, the government leveraged university expansion to distribute benefits across regional states, including reserving university leadership roles for regional political elites. At face value, this strategy has improved equity in access to higher education. But it has also created an excess of university places which needed to be filled, allowing the government to turn a blind eye to widespread exam malpractice that went largely unchecked.
When Prof. Berhanu Nega took over leadership of the Ministry of Education in 2021, he was determined to root out malpractice and shock the system into new ways of working. This has been reinforced by a turn towards fiscal austerity, which may have generated the political will to reduce the number of university entrants. In this blog we look at how a well-intentioned university expansion program appears to have compromised the integrity of public exams and entrenched poor quality in schools.
A political drive for university expansion without parallel improvements in basic education...
Over the last two decades, Ethiopian higher education has witnessed an extensive expansion and system-wide restructuring. Multiple waves of university construction have increased the number of federally funded universities that accept regular undergraduates from 10 in 2010 to 46 in 2023 (three further public universities serve the Civil Service, the Police and the Defence force; and the Oromia Regional State has a state university, which operates differently from the federally-funded institutions). As campuses have opened, intake capacities have ballooned, as have budgets. Recurrent spending on universities increased by 400 percent in real terms—and exceeded 20 percent of all federal recurrent spending—before extremely high inflation since 2021 (Figure 1).
Analysts agree the primary reason for expansion is political. This includes a commitment to social inclusion and distributive justice, a commitment to national unity, and a commitment that links widening participation with the country’s development goals of economic growth and poverty reduction. Considering that public universities have long been known to be among the worst audit offenders, one cannot rule out political rent-seeking as an additional motivation for the expansion.
Growing student demand exceeds the supply of qualified candidates, given the stagnant or declining quality in lower grades. In 2015, the Ministry of Education published its fifth Education Sector Development Plan, bemoaning the fact that in the previous few years “Many students joined higher education institutions with results below the 50 percent threshold in the higher education entrance examinations.” For this to change, the number of candidates, the pass rate, or both, would need to increase.
Figure 1: an aggressive pace of university expansion
Notes: although the government lists fifty public universities in 2023, we exclude four (and their budgets) in all years as they have irregular eligibility criteria: Police University College, Civil Service University, Defence University, Oromia State University. The major reduction in 2022 and 2023 real budgets is linked to very high rates of inflation in recent years (nominal budgets have fallen only 4 percent from 2021 to 2023).
…has fueled the collapse of an examination system
Ethiopia’s Grade 12 exam is high stakes for students, schools and local political establishments. It’s used to determine university placements and results impact reputations. For a very long time, the Grade 12 exam was the preserve of the elite, coming at the end of a ‘Preparatory’ cycle of schooling which enrolled less than 10 percent of children of the relevant age group.
Yet candidature has risen from less than 100,000 to almost 900,000 since 2010 (Figure 2). Part of this can be attributed to a steady increase in access to senior secondary schools. But there was also a leap in candidature in 2021 after the Grade 10 selection exam was dropped and all students were expected to complete four years of secondary school leading to the Grade 12 exam.
Figure 2: more candidates and higher pass rates = many more university entrants
Notes: All panels are in three colours, representing three examination periods. Teal: normal exam processes from 2008 to 2014; Red: increasing reports of exam malpractice from 2015 to 2021; Yellow: new exam processes, with students bussed to universities to sit tests since 2022. Panel A. bars show the count of candidates, in 1000s. Panel B. shows the pass rate, i.e. the share scoring 50 percent or above in the exam. Panel C. shows the number of students who are then eligible for university. Source: Ministry of Education, Annual Statistical Abstracts & Educational Assessment and Examination Services (formerly the National Educational Assessment and Examinations Agency).
Exam pass rates have been on the rise too. Between 2008 and 2014, Grade 12 exam pass rates hovered around 30-40 percent. Then in 2015 there’s a step change, with rates climbing closer to 50 percent and trending upwards until 2021.
Put these together and the system was soon able to produce many multiples of “qualified” candidates. The Ministry of Education’s criticism that the system couldn’t provide enough university-eligible candidates in 2014—around 60,000—quickly faded as this figure doubled and then tripled. Quantitatively everything seemed to be moving in the right direction.
While there is no indication that university expansion directly affected exam content, marking or grading, the step change in performance coincides with a rise in public debates around exam malpractice. The government has made efforts to halt the most overt signs of corruption. Exam paper leakage since 2015 has led to frequent internet shutdowns in exam periods. Tests in 2019 were so severely compromised that grades were based on results in only four subjects.
Internet shutdowns are severe, headline-grabbing, measures but there was little incentive to do more than that. The overall response was insufficient to overcome the widespread exam malpractice taking place at schools. Ultimately, the ever increasing demand for eligible undergraduates weakened pressure for school quality improvements.
Signs of worsening performance reflect weakened pressures to improve school quality
One interpretation of the three percent pass rate is that it reflects the new exam becoming excessively difficult. Yet carefully implemented national assessments monitor basic competencies against curriculum standards and do a lot to validate 2022 and 2023 exam results as appropriate measures of system performance.
In this regard, Ethiopia's National Learning Assessments offer a less politicised gauge of educational performance. Conducted periodically with representative school samples, three rounds of Grade 10 and 12 results are available.
Despite rising exam pass rates up to 2021, learning assessment outcomes have worsened (Figure 3). Grade 12 proficiency rates fell from 15-20 percent to just two to three percent in Maths and English across three assessments. In other words, only two to three percent of students could “demonstrate a solid understanding of subject specific minimum learning competencies and have skills to solve a wide variety of problems appropriate at the grade level”—the sort of standard required for university admission.
Although it’s difficult to establish a direct causal link between exam malpractice and falling assessment scores, the pattern is consistent with reduced incentives to provide high quality learning opportunities in secondary schools. The revamped Grade 12 assessment may be a first step to reversing this quality decline.
Figure 3: low levels of proficiency in secondary schools, from government assessments
Notes: categorical achievement levels are based on expert judgement of each item and may vary slightly from one assessment to the next. Proficiency levels were established following a rigorous process based on >100 expert inputs, detailed in reports for each learning assessment, with broad comparability over time and to the expected standards. We focus on students that are categorised as ‘Proficient’ (or above), which means “Students at this level demonstrate a solid understanding of subject specific minimum learning competencies and have skills to solve a wide variety of problems appropriate at the grade level.”
Government action: remedial measures or quality uplift
Public sentiment is shifting towards asking what the government will now do to address dismal exam performance. There are too many options to enumerate but responses may fall into two categories.
The first category aims to manage enormous rates of exam failure. More candidates—1.7 million—have failed the Grade 12 exam in the past two years than failed in the decade before that—1.5 million. The current response has been to give a second chance for a portion of students to participate in a remedial course and, if they do well, take up vacant university spaces one year later. The need for a remedial option is unlikely to go away soon, and an extension of undergraduate programs from three to four years could be formalised—as suggested in a Ministry of Education draft Roadmap a few years ago. Other options include reducing participation in the Grade 12 exam by filtering more students into vocational programs sooner, and so on.
The second category concentrates on enhancing secondary school quality. Existing literature outlines various approaches that might be tested. Yet inadequate student preparation on entry to secondary schools remains a key constraint. 2020’s National Learning Assessments shows that only 6.5 percent of students are proficient in English at the end of primary school, yet English is the language of instruction for all public secondary schools in Ethiopia. Progress is likely to be slow.
The price of political ambition and misaligned incentives
The Ministry's recent actions highlight the consequences when politically-motivated university expansion neglects basic education quality. The convergence of the government’s interest to fill as many universities as were built and the interests of local actors to maximise their pass rates seemed to have given rise to a system of malpractice to compete for university places that would not have been filled without lowering the passing mark. It is hard to imagine that such an adverse systemic change leaves the incentives of teachers and students unaffected.
Ethiopia presents a cautionary tale: political overdrive to construct universities en masse could end up not only adding little value to quality higher education but may also undermine the incentive mechanisms for improving quality across the entire education system.
CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.
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