Ministry mulls easing school-leavers' exam requirements

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Empty classroom in an Estonian school. Source: Juhan Hepner/ERR

The effects of distance learning resulting from the coronavirus pandemic have caused the education ministry to rethink its approach to school exams, with the possibility that graduating from high school will not be dependent upon exam results, as has been the case up until now.

Other concerns voiced by stakeholders include fears that exams just for their own sake do not provide a clear picture of school pupils' development.

The discussions mainly concern basic school leaving exams – which come at the end of the mandatory education cycle – and while a long-term plan is underway, ERR reports, the coronavirus pandemic has also brought the issue front and center.

Kristin Hollo, head of the ministry's external evaluation department, said: "In order to move education forward, it is important to help those areas from the end of the last academic year and this academic year so far, where students have gotten behind on some topics during distance learning. The most important next step is to provide help."

Ministry spokesperson: Effects of pandemic on education not clear yet

The ministry says it does not yet have a precise overview of the effects of the pandemic on students; Hollo said that a clearer picture will be available after the spring exams and in the autumn.

Hollo said there is also a fear that students may not put enough effort into their exams.

She said: "We can't really assume that a student is so self-aware that he or she will take an exam and do very well, even when nothing depends on it. When athletes [in comparison] compete with each other, they still want to come first, second or third place."

Organization of exams through this academic year is the most pressing factor.

Kaja Sarapuu, director of the Estonian mother tongue teachers' association (Emakeeleõpetajate selts), said exams are not merely intended to assess students' levels, adding the exam itself is an important part of learning.

Sarapuu said: "It is the exam which provides the effort needed for development. It supports that effort."

Graduating basic school contingent on passing exams under existing system

In addition, Sarapuu said she believes that if the completion of basic school no longer depends on an exam, or the role of the exam in this diminishes, it may not be possible in any case to get an adequate picture of a student's development.

At the same time, Kristin Hollo said, a student may also want an overview of progress without undue stress, despite pressure to maintain Estonia's ranking in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development's (OECD) Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) system, where the country placed first in Europe for the first time in 2018, overtaking Finland.

"[PISA tests] do not on their own decide for a student whether to continue or whether to leave school. At the same time, the whole world takes these results into account," Hollo said.

Ministry meetings have so far suggested that the threshold for graduating from basic school could be lowered – even to the extent of simply turning up for an exam.

Hollo also said that the ministry's decision on how to move forward would come soon, and legislation changes may well be required.

The pandemic has also affected some of those schools who hold entrance exams, rather than awarding places based on residency location.

School mandatory from first to ninth grade

Estonia's education system is organized in four levels. Pre-school runs to age seven and results in a certification of progress, while the basic, compulsory system is the nine-year basic school – the first three grades of which are called "beginning school" (Algkool).

Graduating basic school requires that the student learns the curriculum to at least a satisfactory level and passing three basic school graduation exams consisting of the Estonian language or Estonian as a second language, math, and an exam on a subject of the student's choice, as well as completing a creative assignment. As noted these exams are scored from 1 to 5.

Optional secondary education is provided by upper secondary schools (Gümnaasium) and also vocational schools. Completing upper secondary is necessary to go into higher education, and runs through to year 12 (dated from entering basic school). Graduating requires passing a curriculum containing nearly 100 individual courses, to a satisfactory level, passing the state exams – either the Estonian language or Estonian as a second language, together with math and a foreign language exam (e.g. English), as well as completing a research paper or practical assignment. English state exams were actually canceled last academic year, as a result of the pandemic, while many students opted not to take the state exams at all.

Schools can follow either the national curriculum or the  International Baccalaureate Organization (IBO) or Statute of the European Schools' variants.

As noted education is highly prized in Estonia, exemplified by the PISA ranking. Former prime minister Jüri Ratas (Center) recently went as far as to say that a new government minister who had not acquired tertiary education should go and do so.

Statistics on last academic year's state exams are here.

The new Minister of Education and Research, following the entry into office of the Reform/Center coalition last month, is Liina Kersna (Reform).

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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