That Time of The Year

Those residing in parts of the world where school years start in September, the end of year means holiday season. It’s the time for celebration, joy, great food and quality time with friends and families. Novembers and Decembers, however, take on a slightly different turn in other parts of the world, like Kenya and South Korea. Students from both countries take what is considered the most important exams in their lives thus far that would determine the trajectory of their academic career, job prospects and life opportunities in general.

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KCPE sure is a big deal in Kenya: the entire town will celebrate with you if you perform well!

Last Monday, according to The Nation, Kenyan Ministry of Education released the scores of Kenyan Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE), a nation-wide exam taken by students who completed eight years of primary education. KCPE tests students in five different subjects — Kiswahili, English, mathematics, science and agriculture, and social studies. Performance in KCPE determines which type of secondary school the students will gain admissions to. Those with high score will enroll in national secondary schools while those with lower score will aim for provincial schools.

What drew my attention amongst countless recounts of various KCPE-related episodes were opinion pieces criticizing KCPE for contributing to the failure of Kenyan educational system. An op-ed piece from Business Daily criticized KCPE for making students and parents to perceive high score on exam as the ultimate goal of education rather than to inspire love for learning. The Standard added on to this conversation by noting how KCPE-centered primary education system fails to help students reach their full potentials.

The limelight under which KCPE was featured in Kenya reminded me of nation-wide standardized exam in my home country, South Korea. College Scholastic Ability Test, more frequently referred to as Sooneung, is an exam taken by 12th grade students. Students are tested on Korean language, math, English and depending on your track, choices of social science or natural science subjects. Their performance in Sooneung will become a factor in determining which college they would be accepted to.

Like KCPE, Sooneung has been criticized for a long time for its adverse effect on education. For instance, a recent article from Yonhap News Agency cited a professor arguing that the English section of the current Sooneung does not accurately gauge students’ English proficiency but only exacerbates the performance gap between rich and poor students. Kookmin Ilbo also published an article noting that it’s easier for rich students to score higher in Sooneung. Thus, rather than assessing students’ aptitude, it gives a leg up for students born in the family with greater financial resources.


Above is the photo of Kenyan students before taking KCPE (courtesy of The Standard) and below is Korean students before Sooneung. Notice the similarity?

In fact, the attainment gap between the students from higher and lower socioeconomic background was one of the focal criticisms of KCPE. The Nation’s summary of this year’s KCPE results noted that private schools in wealthier regions continue to outperform public schools in less well-off neighborhoods. Hivisasa also published an op-ed piece emphasizing the importance of embracing the average performing students, who tend to be overlooked in the shadow of the top scorers.

So from looking at the Kenyan society’s discourse around KCPE and that of South Korean society around Sooneung, what is the next step for both countries? The answer seems to be evident: bringing greater equity in education. In a sense, I feel optimistic about the future of education in these two countries as there are active discussions and exchanges are taking place in regard to this issue. Moving forward, South Korean and Kenya will have to be cognizant of the fact that the reform should not be about the contents of exam or replacing exam with something else but a structural overhaul. In addition, the societies must strive to change their attitude towards education: education is not merely a means to climb up the socioeconomic ladder but is an universal right that everyone ought to have regardless of their background.



Aduda, David. (November 20th, 2018) “KCPE glory and tears of joy as academies rule the roost again.” The Nation. Retrieved from

Education in Kenya. (2015). Retrieved from

Han, Jong Koo. (November 25th, 2018) “수능 영어 과목에 말하기와 쓰기도 포함해야” Yonhap News Agency. Retrieved from

Lee, Do Kyung. (November 22nd, 2018) “국어31번과 숙명여고사태의 충돌, “수능도 못 믿고 학생부도 못 믿는” Kookmin Ilbo. Retrieved from

Njeri, Njogu wa. (November 22nd, 2018) “What next for 2018 KCPE average performers?” Hivisasa. Retrieved from

Odote, Collins. (November 25th, 2018) “A school is more than just good grades” Business Daily. Retrieved from


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