Half of students fail basic school mathematics exam in many schools

Empty classroom.
Empty classroom. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

Several Tallinn schools saw half of students fail this year's basic school mathematics state exam. Principals point to the exam being too much for students with special needs and all students lacking motivation to memorize formulae.

Basic school leavers took the mathematics state examination last Wednesday. Many schools saw half the students in a class fail the exam. Examples include the Pääsküla School and the Tallinn Art High School.

The Education and Youth Board will have full examination statistics this Wednesday, with preliminary reports based on e-school statistics.

"As strange as it sounds coming from a principal, I haven't really taken an interest," Tõnu Piibur, head of Pelgulinna High School, told ERR when asked how many students failed the exam.

"Looking at the general picture nationwide tells us nothing abut individual students," he added.

Piibur believes that more students fail exams as a result of new educational treatments that prioritize interdisciplinarity, while this is not considered when drawing up exams.

"If the final exam still measures individual performance and factual knowledge; if what they've learned in an interdisciplinary manner is still reflected as individual subjects at exams... the results tell us that the entire system needs to be changed, instead of this back and forth between the old and new systems," Piibur said.

Mari-Liis Sults, principal of the Tallinn Art High School, sees special educational needs, students speaking a different language at home and overall tough requirements as the reason why half of students failed.

"Every student who took the special conditions exam failed – that's 20 percent. Those who have lived in Estonia for fewer than three years also failed. /.../ The reason for ordinary students failing is that they haven't memorized the formulae. They always account for roughly 10 percent," Sults said, adding that while roughly half of all students failed the mathematics exam at the school, there were clear reasons behind it.

Sults believes that requiring students to memorize formulae is no longer justified in this day and age.

"When we do house improvement, we look up the formula to calculate the area of a trapezoid to know how much flooring or wallpaper to buy. Why then do we require a child to know it by heart? Children today won't learn things the usefulness of which is not clear to them," Sults said.

"Talking about the sciences, there are formulae for which students can use aids. But there are also some formulae that a basic school graduate should know if they plan to continue their studies," said Kaarel Rundu, head of the Tallinn Education Department.

The high relative importance of failed exams also has to do with teacher shortage and the effects of the coronavirus period. The mathematics examination's passing threshold of 50 percent was abolished two years ago (effectively meaning that showing up was enough to pass – ed.) in the wake of the coronavirus crisis and gaps in learning it caused. If before the coronavirus period, 11-20 percent of students failed the exam depending on the year, 35 percent would have failed a year ago and 41 percent two years ago had the threshold been in place. The threshold was restored for this year.

"There needs to be a threshold of some kind. We cannot have people graduating basic school without a required level of knowledge. There needs to be a line that says that a person knows enough to have obtained basic education," Minister of Education and Research Kristina Kallas said.

For many, failing the exam means that high schools they have already gotten into might rescind their invitation.

"The diploma will reflect the make-up examination grade (administered by the school – ed.) whereas it does not matter whether the student managed it the first time of second. /.../ It is a great shame when high schools rescind their invitations because the student has already demonstrated their knowledge at entrance exams," Rundu said.

"Aren't entrance exams there to prove the student has obtained a sufficient level of knowledge? The current system makes no sense from the student's point of view, causes too much stress, and we need to revise it," Kristina Kallas said.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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