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Reforming the education system in Russia: Mixed criteria needed
Reforming the education system in Russia: Mixed criteria needed
Last summer, like other recent summers, saw a number of big scandals involving the Unified State Examination (USE). Introduced in Russia two years ago as a mandatory requirement for entering universities, replacing the system of independent entrance exams administered by universities, it has significantly changed the Russian education system.
Initially, the USE was thought to have an advantage in that it allowed students from remote regions of Russia to compete for places in the country’s leading universities — located mainly in Moscow and St. Petersburg — on more equal and transparent terms. However, the first few years after the exam’s introduction have revealed a number of serious problems, the main one being mistrust of the integrity and transparency of the USE system. Unfortunately, the corruption pervasive in Russian society has left its mark on education, too. As a result, the media and — even more so — social networks are full of scandals about buying grades, leaking exams ahead of time, manipulating lists of university applicants, and so on.
In his speech in Maikop on August 22, 2011, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev called for a public discussion about how to optimize the USE system. Afterwards, the president’s official blog was flooded with comments criticizing the existing system and proposing changes. The Russian Public Chamber also held a special meeting devoted to improving the USE in late July 2011.
Apart from accusations of insufficient transparency and corruption, the problem with the USE — not only for the humanities but of the higher education in general — is that its existing model often fails to reflect the applicant’s critical thinking skills. It can only assess the applicant’s factual knowledge, which it does with a fair degree of reliability. It does not include such criteria as creativity, independent thinking, or an ability to analyze and draw conclusions. This is why the old system of university entrance exams is most often cited as a potential alternative to the USE, as it allowed qualified teachers to assess both an applicant’s knowledge and critical thinking skills.
Yet another problem with the USE is that many teachers have begun focusing on preparing students for the exam during the last school year instead of the normal curriculum. The result is what is called «teaching to the test», depriving students of the opportunity to study the most important and difficult subjects in the last year of school. This does nothing to improve the country’s general education level. It is especially sad when the most talented and gifted children do not have an opportunity to develop their talents because of the emphasis on the standardized USE.
What should be done to improve the situation? Other countries offer us several basic models of university entrance systems. One that is used in a number of European countries (Austria, Switzerland, Belgium and, until recently, Italy) allows state universities to accept all applicants without any exams or restrictions on numbers, except for certain professions, such as medicine; then, during the first year, they expel those who do not perform up to the university’s standards. Apparently, this system is the least stressful for applicants and for society in general, but there are several factors that make it unfeasible in Russia. First, the Russian university system is extremely centralized, which means that a majority of applicants seek to attend the twenty to thirty leading universities instead of spreading out across the country. So it would be impossible for these universities to admit all applicants without restrictions. Second, Russia does not have a professional army but rather compulsory military service, with exemptions for university students. As a result, admitting anyone and everyone to universities will make it impossible to draft the necessary number of soldiers. For these reasons, this system cannot be introduced in Russia until it has a professional army.
The United States, on the other hand, has what is essentially a mandatory standardized test (ACT or SAT), which is an important criterion used by colleges to evaluate applicants. But there are several differences between the standardized tests in the U.S. and Russia’s USE. The main one is that test results in the U.S. are only one criterion for admission. These include a competitive evaluation of student’s written applications and interviews. In order to increase the transparency of the admissions process, evaluations of applications and especially interviews are conducted not only by professors but also by representatives of alumni associations and the employers of alumni (stakeholders). Obviously, this system is more flexible and allows admission boards to assess each applicant’s personal qualities and potential in greater depth than a standardized test allows.
In the Soviet Union, at the beginning of perestroika in the mid 1980s, applicant interviews were made mandatory alongside entrance exams, and this lasted for a couple of years. Now interviews and written applications are only used to evaluate applicants to some joint Master’s programs with foreign universities. So this model is not alien to the Russian education system. Provided the process is conducted in a transparent way that involves stakeholders, with clear assessment criteria, the U.S. practice can be successfully adapted for Russia. This would help eliminate many of the shortcomings of the USE system.
Another important difference is that standardized college admissions tests in the United States are administered not at the end of students’ senior year but in the middle of it. This makes the admissions process longer, alleviating some of the stress on applicants, unlike the current Russian system, in which the USE and university admissions take place within 1–1.5 months. Children spend this time in the state of extremely uncertainty and stress, which strongly affects their mental state. Proof of this can be seen in spike in student suicides around the time of the USE, which happens every year. If the USE were administered in February or March instead of June, this would make the process less stressful. Early testing would also allow high school seniors who underperformed due to stress to retake the exam if permitted by the attestation commission. This provision, allowing students to make a mistake, would also alleviate the psychological and social pressure of the process.
Russia could also learn from the system used in Germany, China and Brazil. These countries also have a national standardized exam (the Abitur in Germany, the Gao Kao in China and the Vestibular in Brazil), but, unlike Russia, it is not a high school graduation exam but a university entrance exam. According to statistics, only about 40% of graduates in Germany pass the Abitur, i.e. only those with the determination to attend university. Students who do not want a higher education receive a secondary education diploma based on their current grades and exams. This system is also less stressful. In Russia, children face the double stress, since failing the USE means not only that they will not attend university (which for boys means they will be drafted), but also that they will not receive a secondary education diploma, which immediately limit their opportunities in life. It would be useful for Russia to award secondary education diplomas based on a student’s grades and exams while in school, as was the case in the past, and to transform the USE in a national university entrance exam.
Apart from reducing the psychological burden, this would make it possible to diversify the questions on the test and to make them more creative. The Association of Leading Universities and other public organizations could be enlisted in developing and evaluating the tests. All this would improve the grading process.
Finally, there is yet another school system, which British Education Minister Michel Gove in 2010 described as the best in the world and which can be of use to Russia. It is Singapore’s system. Like many other aspects of the country’s social life, it is based on the principle of meritocracy, i.e. priority support is given to the best pupils, not the worst. This is in complete opposition to the well-known American formula «no child left behind." It focuses on discovering and developing the talents of the best students early on, instead of bringing them down to the level of the rest of the students. As Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of modern Singapore, wrote in his memoirs, standardizing education in other countries, with strong and weak students studying in the same class, results in poor students never improving their work and the best students performing worse and eventually losing their potential.
In order to avoid this, secondary education in Singapore is based on the principle of streaming, in which children are divided into classes depending on their performance and inclinations exhibited during the last years of primary school or from the first years of secondary school. For gifted children, there are humanities and technical streams; for all others, there is a simplified basic stream. This approach gives teachers an opportunity to work with homogenous classes, which naturally increases the efficiency of education programs. As a result, the best students get an opportunity to study in depth their chosen subjects and to better prepare for college. Since this streaming system is applied to all Singaporean schools, and not only to elite lyceums, virtually all gifted children in the country, no matter where they live or their socioeconomic background, have the opportunity to achieve their academic potential.
It must be acknowledged that the problem of excessive egalitarianism in primary and secondary education, which dates back to the Soviet era, has become especially pressing in recent years with the introduction of the USE. As I have noted, normal curriculum in the senior year of high school has been replaced by «teaching to the test»; teachers’ main goal is to ensure that all of their students pass the exam. This forces teachers to give the most attention to the worst students, while the best are neglected, even though they are under the most stress, as they generally want to attend one of the leading universities and a high score on the USE is extremely important for their chances. This trend is further aggravated by the immigration pressure on the Russian school system. Rising immigration from post-Soviet republics means more immigrant students in schools. Given that their knowledge of Russian and of many other subjects is, unfortunately, poor, teachers are forced to give them more attention, thus creating a development barrier for the best students.
This excessive egalitarianism was seriously addressed at the above-mentioned meeting of the Russian Public Chamber in July 2011. At the meeting, Yaroslav Kuzminov, rector of the National Research University — Higher School of Economics proposed introducing two levels to the USE, so that the majority of schoolchildren can take the basic level test, while the best students can take the advanced level test instead. Naturally, the maximum score for the basic level would be significantly lower than that of the advanced level. This is like a streaming system for the exam, as it sets the best students apart. However, for this to be effective the education system would also have to transition to a streaming system for the last two or three years of school. This could be accomplished by diversifying classes at every school or by transferring the best students to a better school within the same district. In any case, the problem of insufficient support for talented students under the current USE system is obvious and public debates have already begun on how to change the situation.
It would be unwise to completely discard the many years of experience universities have of administering independent entrance exams. A possible solution could be some sort of a mixed system: students that get a high score on the USE should be able to enter a university with this score. But all students should have the right to choose: if they are dissatisfied with the results of their USE, they should be allowed to take an entrance exam for their university of choice. This system would allow applicants to demonstrate their critical and analytical thinking skills to university admission boards.
Here we can point to the example of Master’s and postgraduate programs. Entrance exams to both are administered by the universities themselves. This does not arouse suspicion in the media that the system is corrupt — at leas not compared to the scale of scandals surrounding the USE.
In conclusion, we must acknowledge that improving the USE and university admissions procedures has become an extremely pressing problem in Russia in the last two years, as noted by President Medvedev. In light of the best foreign practices described above, it seems proper to create a mixed system in which the Unified State Exam will be accompanied by the following criteria for university admissions:
— the right of any university to competitively evaluate written applications and in-person interviews in addition to the USE, with clear and transparent evaluation criteria (leading universities should also preserve and expand their right to administer additional entrance exams);
— the right of an applicant to take entrance exams for a specific university instead of submitting a USE score;
— introducing a streaming system, including both a two-tier USE and separating out the best students during their last two years of school;
— possibly changing the status of the USE from a graduation exam to a university entrance exam and ending the practice awarding secondary education diplomas based on USE results;
— holding the USE earlier in the year in order to reduce stress on students and giving students who do not perform up to their potential on the USE the option of retaking it.
All these steps will make the USE and university admissions process more flexible and efficient, while the exam itself will gain greater acceptance in Russian society. Otherwise, existing mistrust of the USE will only grow, while the stress it puts on students will continue to threaten the nation’s health. International social psychologists claim that Russia has overtaken China as the nation with the most stressful university admissions process. And this is not something to be proud of.
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