The Determinants of Academic Achievement in Liberia

By Tarnue Johnson

The Perspective

January 8, 2002

The Inquirer Newspaper (Liberia) has done a great job by publishing the 2001 national examinations results in its November 19, 2001 issue. I must commend this paper for undertaking such a task. It is about time the education became a focal point for popular discourse in Liberia. I am sure many would be anxious to know how schools are being run and how in fact students are performing behind the school wards. It is imperative that such a debate be held and decisions made with regards to the future of schools in Liberia. Because of the strong correlation between education and social development (see Tilak, 1997), the future of education must become intimately intertwined with the future of the country. Authentic intersubjective dialogue must be accommodated in pursuit of authentic action.

As Freire has noted in many of his writings, authentic dialogue must lead to action, which is then analyzed and evaluated before further action. Action is not just any action; it involves collective struggle to challenge the existing social relations, which determines some of the basic components of social life, such as access to land, water and income (Cited in Kidd and Kamer,1981, p.31).

Many Liberians and friends of Liberia may have had the opportunity to glance through the 2001 national exams results as a statistical breakdown of the results have been republished in the news section of the Liberian Connection Website. The results are said to be based on statistics released by the Monrovia national office of the West African Examinations Council. For a long time the national examinations had been the gold standard of Liberian education.

Understandably, the release of national exams results every year has always resulted in two contradictory outcomes - a degree of fanfare for those who make it and sometimes complete dismay and sadness for those who do not pass. The feeling of personal disappointment for not passing the national exams is quite understandable, given the degree of latitude accorded the results. Thus, passing the exams is seen as completing the rite of passage from secondary to higher education. In some cases, it might even serve as a psychological tool for positive reinforcement of self-concept and personal fulfillment.

But the results of 2001 as with the results in past years, have raised a number of critical questions and issues associated with the functioning of the Liberian educational system. Unmasking these critical questions, which may be hidden beyond outer appearances and manifestations, duly constitutes the task and challenge of serious explanation. It is imperative that such an explanation be as significantly comprehensive as the depth of the problems that we face. The test results have been presented as data, which is a good thing and a commendable effort.

What is required, however, is to make analysis of the data to infer, predict and make tangible assumptions about how to improve the functioning of schools. An analysis of the data is also important for other practical purposes such as the diffusion of good practices from high performing schools to low performing ones. Test results can also be an effective feedback mechanism to enhance teaching and students' achievement. Now, let us examine the test results as have been reported in the local press.

The 2001 national examinations results show that slightly over half of all those who sat the exams did not make a successful pass. Hence, out of 8,049 candidates who sat the 2001 senior high school certification examination, only 65.7% made a successful pass, while 34.25% failed. I would not be surprise that some might hail these results as relatively desirable given the prevailing state of economic deprivation in the country. But no amount of cultural and economic deprivation theories can explain away the importance of higher achievement.

Hence, I am inclined to think that these results fall far short of expectations. The stakes for higher educational achievement could never be higher for a country that must strive to lay a strong foundation for mass participation in culture, economics and the process of civic governance. Another issue that must be of concerned to us and those whom we have entrusted to run schools and other social services in the country is the skew (lopsided) nature of the distribution of test results across the country. For example, out of 18 schools, which had all their candidates successfully passed, 12 are concentrated in the Monrovia area. The remaining 6 schools are sparsely distributed across the rest of the country. At this point, one can only speculate that this may be the case because of two principal reasons. Either because of the concentration of high schools in the Monrovia area as has been the historically the case, and even more so today, or indeed, because of the high concentration of relatively high performing schools in Monrovia versus the rest of the country. While such an outcome may seems logical from a mathematical point of view (theory of statistics), it must raise crucial concerns from a policy and planning perspective.

From a policy perspective, a favorable distribution of high performing schools across the country must be desirable in terms of galvanizing the citizenry for country-wide civic participation and reconstruction. This involves not only the building of more secondary schools in rural areas. While such an undertaking would be necessary, it is much more crucial to ensure adherence to a series of performance criteria derived partly from the lessons of high performing schools throughout the country. The 2001 national examinations results could be used along with other tools as a diagnostic indicator of good performance.

The merit of combining a variety of indicators that include quantitative and qualitative dimensions of educational growth could not be stressed enough. There has been a longstanding need for a drive towards quality improvement as a focal point for an education reform agenda. If anything, this need derives from an appreciation of past and current problems. In the past there has always been an incongruity between educational expansion on the one hand, and education system disarray on the other hand. Nagel et al (1989) have more appropriately described this fundamental contradiction in the Liberian educational system as loose coupling. In 1966 a Northwestern University team led by Clower and his associates made similar observations on page 345 of their report regarding problems of educational development in Liberia:

What is disturbing about Liberia is not that ten years have failed to produce a good educational system, but that ten years have failed to produce even the foundations of such a system. The reasons are not entirely clear. One can point to numerous instances of inefficiency, corruption, and incompetence in the development and operation of the expanding system of government schools…

The 2001 national examinations results show extremes in the performance of students and schools across the country. Some schools such as St. Samuel High and Hannah B. Williams, saw all their candidates failed while other schools saw all their candidates passed. Schools such as J.T. Dayrell Memorial in Maryland County saw all their candidates passed. Several schools in Nimba did not see any of their candidates passed at all. These schools include Garplay Inland Mission, Dolo Memorial High, Christian High, Kwendin Vocational Training Center, etc. In Lofa County, only one school saw all their candidates passed. This may of course be the result of the disruption caused by the fighting in that part of the country. Once again it is important to stress that while the uncertain military and political situation throughout the country may account for poor academic performance in most schools, the lack of a long-term coherent strategy to confront underachievement can be regarded as a chief culprit.

A careful scrutiny of final test results both as real-time and historical data can provide better signals in confronting a variety of problem issues. Such a careful analysis might provide some insight regarding real substantial differences between schools throughout the country. There may be differences between schools on a number of crucial operational variables. And these differences to all intents and purposes determine academic achievement.

These include for instance, teacher quality, administrative competence, instructional quality, students' motivation to learn, the home background of specific students, disparity in resource distribution among schools, etc. So, the national exams like any standardized test are meant and must be operationalized as a tool to sort out these tangible and crucial differences that may exist between various secondary schools in the country.

Thus, the national exams results should not be an end in themselves; they are meant to be “things for us” to paraphrase Kant; they are meant to help depict the story of individual high schools that currently operate in Liberia. The results of standardized tests such as the national examinations are not only used to measure the academic abilities of students but if properly combined with other formative measures, the results of these tests can be used as effective research and policy tools.

Educational research has a tremendous role to play in specifying the determinants of academic achievement, school improvement and reform. Furthermore, such research demands the combination of alternative approaches that will ultimately aid the formation of policy. The pursuance of a particular policy perspective must flow from careful studies of school environments and learning processes in the context of particular research paradigms. This tradition has been absent in Liberia in places where it should matter most such as the Ministry of education, among teachers and school administrators.

International experts have often been called upon to fail this void. But the role of foreign experts in the furtherance of research as a prelude to school improvement is limited. These experts very often have a limited knowledge and lack a deeper appreciation of the situation (culture, sociology and folk theories) in which they must operate. Hence, there must be a core of indigenous research cadres involving teachers and school administrators. Teachers in schools and colleges must be trained to recognize the importance of and to carry out classroom research to enhance the vitality of classroom learning and interactions. Research must also be frequently conducted to establish the guideposts for the economic and financial viability of educational projects and school organizations, and other specific policy initiatives.

The Practical Use of Alternative Research Traditions
The national exams results could be used as the basis for correlational studies to establish relationships between variables such as test scores of candidates in particular schools and the effectiveness of the curricula arrangements in those schools. One may want to know the effect of teacher quality and the curriculum content on test scores in schools around the country for instance. Correlation-regression analysis could be used for such analytical exercise. The results of correlational studies have often formed the basis for experimental research designs (mostly carried out in controlled and laboratory conditions). Most experimental research designs are carried out to gain concrete insights into the dynamics of students' behavior and educational outcomes in learning situations (Gay, 1987). For example, Ryan (1982) has found that teachers' supports for competence (eg. positive feedback) will enhance motivation in general and may even enhance intrinsic motivation, if such supports are administered in a way that is autonomy supportive.

Similarly, supports for relatedness (eg. the interpersonal involvement of parents and teachers) will enhance motivation in general but may enhance intrinsic motivation if such supports are also autonomy supportive (Grolnick and Ryan, 1989). Research has also found that teachers' orientations influence the general classroom climates. Thus, students in classroom with autonomy supportive teachers displayed more intrinsic motivation (self-motivation), perceived competence, and self-esteem than did students in classrooms with controlling teachers (see Deci, Schwartz, et al, 1981). What one can infer from these findings is that the extent to which the school context or environment is more autonomy supportive, rather than controlling, will determine the extent to which teachers will support the autonomy of their students.

Other research traditions in the field of education have emphasized the context dependence of both measurement and the relationship between variables. The concept of situated meaning is central to these approaches. These research traditions could be classified into three broad areas - phenomenology, sociolinguistics, and ethnomethodology (see Mishler, 1979). Phenomenologists, drawing on the works of Husserl, Heideggar and others, see subject and object as one. Phenomenologists contend that making a distinction between the experiencing agent (a researcher) and the object of experience (students in classroom or laboratory settings) is misleading. An adjunct to this methodological alternative is hermeneutics, the study of the meaning of texts.

Hermeutics has broadened the scope of 'qualitative' research approaches to focus on discourse and the development of interpretive understanding of social interaction (Mezirow,1996). Methods of doing phenomelogical research includes documentation and ethnography. The similarities between documentation and ethnography include an emphasis on observations in classroom settings or what Geertz (1973) calls ''thick descriptions" in using participants' perspectives of the situation (see also Mishler, 1979). These comparative research traditions can be used to shed light on the educative process which is essentially a social process. These comparative research methods also offer significant alternatives in the generation and analysis of data such as test scores, to bring greater clarity to the task of educational development and school improvement.

A fundamental thesis of this essay is that differences in students’ performance as measure by national examinations results, is an effect of the confluence of variables. Prominent among these variables are teacher quality, administrative competence, curriculum and instructional formats, motivational structures at schools, etc. Thus, the spread of high and low scores on the current national examinations results indicate that there may be fundamental differences in the way schools are run in Liberia. And it is about time that we appreciate these differences as a first step on the long road toward school improvement and educational reform in Liberia.

But this will not be an easy act to execute. Today, opportunity, common sense, and wisdom (especially at the top) are scarce commodities in Liberia. One is hoping that the New Year will bring some surprises by igniting a sudden change of direction. And surprises they will be! Because many Liberians for very good reasons feel locked out from this wonderful thing called opportunity. The dilemma faced by the lack of widespread opportunity for personal advancement has been compounded by the absence of wisdom and common sense where they matter most - at the top of the existing social and political order.

In this regard, the poem below provides a recommendation:

Fill the barren land
Fill it with opportunity
Fill it with wisdom
Let opportunity rein
Let wisdom rein
down like a mighty stream
Let opportunity rein
Opportunity is a friend
Oppression is an enemy
The enemy must be stopped
for memory’s sake
Fill the barren land
Let opportunity rein
Let wisdom rein.

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