Confusion surrounds state exams one week before they start

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National exam. Source: Siim Lõvi/ERR

The first national exam for high school graduates is taking place on April 19. With one week to go, confusion reigns around whether the exams are to be voluntary for the first time in history and what that decision would mean for teachers.

Teachers are going through an anxious time, ERR reports. The first national exam is in a week, but it is still not confirmed whether the exams will be voluntary or not.

The Estonian Education Personnel Union, the Estonian Association of Heads of Schools and the Estonian School Student Councils' Union have sent a public appeal to the Riigikogu's cultural committee to not bind graduating high school to exam results, mainly due to concerns around disruption in education caused by remote learning over the past year.

"This school year has been extremely difficult, a bit like riding a roller coaster. Students have been able to attend school at different levels and if the decision comes that the exams are to be voluntary, this would definitely be important for the students," Miina Härma high school principal Ene Tannberg, said.

As early as February, another school principal, from the Hugo Treffner school, made a proposal to the Ministry of Education and Research to make the final exams voluntary. It is now the second week in April, and the exams are approaching while there is still no clear response to this request, ERR reports.

"I understand the situation prevents us from making any long-term decisions, but two weeks before the exams, I would like to know what the situation is. The confusing communication is disturbing, we have a week until the exam and they don't know whether it's voluntary. It adds anxiety," high school graduate and deputy chair of the Estonian School Student Councils' Union, Katariina Järve, said.

Järve noted that anyone can get a message about being a close contact and will then have to stay in isolation. "It can also be that the same thing happens during the additional exams. The possibility isn't high, but it can happen," she said.

There are most likely students among those who wouldn't take the exams who are planning to continue studying, or whose place is secured in a university for competing at an olympiad.

Minister of Education and Research Liina Kersna (Reform) said that the advantage of keeping the exams compulsory would be the fact that the state gets an overview of the results. "Regarding decoupling the exams from graduating, this is a mental health concern. When I see the monitoring study of the Minister of Social Affairs and the results of young people's mental health, then they show that half of 15-24 aged people have experienced signs of depression, 72 percent are having mental exhaustion. These are serious signs," Kersna said.

Considering all of this, the Ministry of Education and Research, made a law amendment proposal to the Upper Secondary Schools Act to decouple the final exams from the terms of graduating. 

"It was also supported by seven-four by the cultural committee. On Monday, the draft legislation will have its second reading, on Wednesday, the third reading. We hope that the parliament will support this, because the situation has been very difficult, especially for the graduating classes," Kersna said.

Although both Association of Heads of Schools and the School Student Councils' Union have called for more lenient treatment this year, state exams play another very important role in addition to graduating from school.

"Tallinn University of Technology has a threshold-based admission. We have very high thresholds, and anyone who is above a certain threshold in broad mathematics will be admitted," the university's vice-rector for studies, Hendrik Voll, said.

Graduates currently have only one goal in front of them - to get through high school and get their secondary education on paper. However, Ene Tannberg, a long-experienced school principal, also sees the dangers that current differences may pose in the future.

"Some high school graduates take a break - who goes into the Defense Forces, who just thinks about what they want out of life. If he doesn't have exam results, can he apply to universities on an equal footing in the coming years?" Tannberg said.

There will be no discount for admission to Tallinn University of Technology this year.

"If in previous years we evaluated the results of the state exam and if this year, we would evaluate the average grade, it would be extremely unequal and we definitely do not want to go that route," Voll noted.

Liina Kersna believes that the Riigikogu will approve state exams as voluntary this year and that this decision will come next week. On their behalf, however, the Ministry of Education and Research makes every effort to ensure that anyone who wishes can take the exam and pass them as safely as possible.

"I think we need to open the debate on exams at a calmer time, what role exams play in our education system, who and why should do them to make each exam have a meaningful result," Kersna said.

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Editor: Roberta Vaino

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