Learning difficulty: Exam season in Armenia reveals education system woes

Educators in Armenia have faced questions amid a mounting debate about the quality and fairness of graduation/entrance tests that some say are deliberately complicated to produce more failing results this year.

The speculation is that since Armenia switched from the old-fashioned 10-grade general education to a reformed 12-grade system under the Bologna process, next year will create a gap and will not produce any graduates for state-run and private schools of higher learning that have been mushrooming in the country lately. The failures of this year, therefore, will become entrants next year, the speculation has it.

Meanwhile, higher school hopefuls have met with a sobering reality as they have been sitting exams in different subjects in recent weeks.

Students, their parents and private tutors have been fuming over the quality of tests that they say are more like puzzles and fail to correspond to the guiding study material. Meanwhile, the authors of the tests as well as representatives of the Evaluation and Testing Center insist that everything is in line with the curricula and the tests ask no more than is included in school textbooks.

A total of 17,665 graduating pupils had applied for joint graduation/entrance examinations this year –about 1,500 fewer than in 2009. The exams started across the republic on June 1. As in previous years the main complaints among exam-sitters this year concern the Armenian Language & Literature subject.

A total of 10,754 teenagers sat the exam in the Armenian language and literature on June 4. Of them, 1,171, or nearly 11 percent, failed to score the minimum grade (8) to pass. Only two school graduates had perfect scores, 20 points (the number of such successes last year was 12). A majority of the exam-sitters, 7,339, scored between 7.5 and 13.25, with the average of the exam standing at 10.98.

That exam was immediately followed by heated discussions and complaints about the complexity of the tests and that too little time had been provided for solving them.

Khatunik Aramyan, who has for years coached higher school hopefuls in the Armenian language and literature, says none of her eight pupils this year got an unsatisfactory mark (the lowest was 12.5 and the highest – 15.25 points). But the private tutor still questions some of the rules applied.

“To begin with, the time given for these exams should be increased by one hour so that they last four hours,” says Aramyan, arguing that three hours are not enough for giving answers to all 80 questions.

At a press conference on June 16 Deputy Education Minister Manuk Mkrtchyan said the decision to assign only three hours for the exams had been made based on observations of exam organizers.

“During the past three years exam organizers have pointed out that no one works after three hours. The fourth hour becomes uncontrollable, most exam-sitters use it to get answers from somewhere to the questions they can’t answer,” explained Mkrtchyan.

And Aramyan says that for four years test guides have been compiled without any changes, while the tests themselves have been undergoing change way beyond the suggested guidelines and requirements.

Honored teacher Beatriche Stepanyan echoes these concerns. “There is a huge gap between the curriculum, the textbook, the text guide and the actual test questions. They all tell different things,” she says.

Aramyan also says that the test questions and assignments have been deliberately made intricate and the requirements are formulated in a way that applicants should spend too much time deliberating the question before they get the point of an assignment.

The authors of this year’s tests Ashkhen Jrbashyan and Parandzem Meytikhanyan have also been criticized for a number of assignments that admittedly leave room for interpretation. Both have so far refrained from commenting on these and other complaints and said they would present their views and statements only after the conclusion of the examination period.

Deputy Minister Manuk Mkrtchyan said, meanwhile, that the scores of entrants who provided “wrong” answers to questions that left room for interpretation would be raised by 0.5-1 point.

Even despite scoring relatively low, a majority of applicants with “positive” scores this year will be admitted to universities, since there is no short supply of higher education in Armenia today –
state-run universities offer 20,500 seats for only about 18,000 entrants (however positions may be limited according to faculty). And those who fail this year will have another go to test their luck in 2011 when no hot contest is expected in view of the absence of lower school graduates.