Teachers and pupils in Iraqi secondary schools have been thrown into confusion by a new decision of the Education Ministry to end third-chance exams.
Originally introduced to help pupils affected by conflict and insecurity, the practice has been criticized for lowering educational standards. This is not the first time the ministry has decided to end it, but on previous occasions it changed its mind.
Ahmed Al-Azzawi, a sixth-grade literature student, welcomed the chance to re-sit his mathematics exam after scoring 40 out of 100 on his second attempt.
“I passed all the final exams but mathematics. Should I repeat this year because of 10 marks only?” he asked. That would have delayed his hopes of finishing high school and going to university.
Several times in the past decade, third- and sixth-grade secondary students were allowed to take a third-chance exam. In 2020, the Ministry of Education announced an end to the practice. Al-Azzawi was among those who called on the ministry to reconsider its decision.
“For family reasons, we were forced to move to Diyala, northeast of Baghdad,” he told Al-Fanar Media. “I studied on my own while affiliated to a school. This affects my education.”
On January 19, Al-Azzawi’s hopes were renewed with the ministry’s decision to allow “regular sixth-grade secondary students … who have failed in one or two subjects, for two years or the last year, to re-sit exams.”
The ministry announced, however, that the “third-chance” system will be halted this academic year at all school stages.
Misused Emergency Measure
The third-attempt exam system was intended to help Iraqi pupils affected by displacement or instability in the civil conflicts that followed the U.S.-led invasion of the country in 2003.
“It was an emergency measure to help students who were unable to attend school or exams, to pursue their education. Unfortunately, although the emergency situation is almost over, the measure is still in place.”Khalil Halawchi
Headmaster of Al-Awail Private Secondary School for boys in Mosul
Khalil Halawchi, headmaster of Al-Awail Private Secondary School for boys in Mosul, told Al-Fanar Media: “It was an emergency measure to help students who were unable to attend school or exams, to pursue their education. Unfortunately, although the emergency situation is almost over, the measure is still in place.”
Al-Azzawi countered that poor quality education and institutional corruption are themselves an emergency situation.
“I would not support such a decision if I was in a country with better, more integrated education,” he said. “This measure is to compensate for such failures and underperformance.”
A Life-Changing Decision
Mohammed Hassan, a second-year medical student at Al-Iraqia University, in Baghdad, took the biology exam twice at high school-exit exams two years ago to score higher marks.
“I knew there would be a fierce competition over universities,” Hassan told Al-Fanar Media. “I expected to get only 88 out of 100 in the first-chance exam.”
Hassan faced the dilemma of sitting a second-chance biology exam, with the risk of failure, or paying high tuition fees in the parallel education system at a public university. (Parallel programs allow students with lower qualifications to enroll in classes by paying higher fees.)
“I needed not less than 97 to join the medical school. It was a life-changing decision,” Hassan said. “I was unable to learn the textbook by heart. The exams assess our memorizing abilities rather than our understanding.”
After a stressful time, in which he questioned his decision several times and was criticised by others, Hassan finally scored 99 and joined the medical school.
“Without that decision, I wouldn’t be here now,” he said. “I was never a careless student, but our curricula, even at medical schools, are not beneficial. They indoctrinate students and prepare them to memorize subjects like parrots. Even the ministerial high-school-exit exams cannot really assess students’ scientific achievement.”
Education Quality Concerns
Some educators and students question the value of competition with such extra opportunities. Halawchi, the Mosuli headmaster, thinks Hassan’s story is not the norm.
“Students who get full marks to attend medical schools usually make impressive efforts and take summer classes to achieve them,” he said. “This is not the norm. Most of those in favour of the third-chance are careless students.”
“From experience, we know that there are specific measures to assess teaching and learning based on the first original attempt and an alternative one. The knowledge amount of those who fail in both attempts is much less than required to pass.”Ameer Al-A’asam
A lecturer at the School of Electronic Engineering and Computer Science at Russia’s South Ural State University
For his part, Ameer Al-A’asam, a lecturer at the School of Electronic Engineering and Computer Science at Russia’s South Ural State University, thinks that “the third attempt is academically incorrect” and does not accurately measure one’s knowledge.
“From experience, we know that there are specific measures to assess teaching and learning based on the first original attempt and an alternative one. The knowledge amount of those who fail in both attempts is much less than required to pass.”
A lecturer at an Iraqi university before travelling abroad, Al-A’asam called third-chance exams “political bribery of the people”.
Ali Al-Attar, a philosophy teacher at a secondary school in Kufa, south of Baghdad, said he had received new students who passed the third-chance exam just before the mid-term exams of their new grade.
“The school asked me to perform two exams for them and randomly predict their daily interaction level,” he told Al-Fanar Media. “This is a farce.”
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Halawchi also had a student join his new grade a week before the mid-term exams. “He missed two months of his studies. We are confused how could we to let him take the mid-year exams,” he said. “We asked the Ministry and got no answer so far.”