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What are the Consequences of Secondary Education Crisis in Kyrgyzstan?

“The crisis of the education system is particularly evident in the system of secondary education, which is designed to give equal access to knowledge to all, regardless of which region they live in and their well-being. However, in practice it does not work well, and schoolchildren from remote and poor areas, who are forced to join the ranks of labor migrants and enter the unskilled labor market, end up being vulnerable to violations of their rights. What needs to be done to align access to education, and who is responsible? ”- expert Anastasia Valeeva asks in her special piece for CABAR.asia.

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Education should function as a way out of poverty

Anastasia Valeeva. Photo courtesy of the author.
Poverty in Kyrgyzstan has the face of a child. Statistics show that one out of four Kyrgyzstanis lives below the poverty line, but among children the proportion is one out of three. At the same time, poverty is more acute in rural areas than in the city. Thus, we have the classic portrait of poverty – a large family from the countryside. What can be done to ensure that poverty is not inherited from generation to generation?

Undeniably, education is an indisputable factor which contributes to poverty reduction and economic growth. Largely, this is the reason why countries establish compulsory and free education; in Kyrgyzstan, secondary school education – that is, nine grades – is compulsory. Thus, for the state education is not a luxury, but a necessary investment in the future potential of its citizens. 

Nevertheless, despite equal access to education as such, the quality of education that students receive in different regions of Kyrgyzstan varies greatly. The knowledge level of school graduates in Kyrgyzstan can be tracked with the help of an indicator such as the results of a nationwide testing.

National Scholarship Test as an indicator of education level

High school graduates take National Scholarship Test. Source: testing.kg
On June 14, 2018, the Ministry of Education of the Kyrgyz Republic published a list of schoolchildren who were competing for state scholarships at local universities based on the results of the country-wide National Scholarship Test (NST).[1] Of the 59 people in the list, 43 were graduates of schools in Bishkek. Why does this happen?

Unfortunately, this indicator is not ideal for a comparative analysis through several parameters. First of all, the exam itself is not compulsory, and, as a rule, only those who are going to enroll in higher education institutions take it. Thus, while in Bishkek it is almost every schoolchild, in the regions it is, say, the “best” half (in Batken 75 percent of schoolchildren take the NST; in Dzhalal-Abad and Osh regions – about 60 percent), and this skews the sample in favor of Bishkek.

Second, the NST is a “concluding” measurement and, accordingly, it is impossible to adjust the course of education based on it; rather, it can be used to track trends post-factum. The creators of the test have stated that it “has proven to be a measure that can provide a correct assessment of applicants for higher education.”[2] However, they admit that the test cannot be used to assess the quality of a school’s performance.[3] The test merely measures students’ individual skills that are needed for enrollment and academic success in institutes of higher education.

Furthermore, the officials of the Center for Education Assessment and Teaching Methods and other experts agree that the quality of teaching varies depending on the school and its location. Schools located in rural areas, as a rule, are characterized by a shortage of highly qualified teachers, a lack or shortage of textbooks and teaching materials, and unequal access of students to learning resources and mass media. This suggests that despite having seemingly equal access to education, school graduates seeking further education at a higher education institution are in different starting positions.

According to the test makers, the NST was tasked to cope with this very problem: “under unequal initial conditions of life and education, the task was to ensure equal access to higher education for urban and rural children… on the basis of honest, transparent, and independent testing”. While there is no doubt about either the independence or transparency of the test, big questions arise when it comes to equality that such a test presents.  

Equal access, unequal quality

Even after taking into account all of the factors mentioned above, one cannot but admit that schoolchildren from the regions as a whole perform much worse on the test than their counterparts from Bishkek. While in the capital the average score was 132.5, in Osh Region it was 108.4 against a minimum admission score of 110. In general, in the poorest regions of Naryn, Jalal-Abad, and Batken average scores tend to be low. This means that among those who failed the NST – which is 43 percent of all those who sat the exam in 2018 – there is a strong bias toward schoolchildren from the regions. At the same time, despite the fact that the Ministry of Education has reported an overall increase in average scores in the regions,[4] the increase in the number of students who passed the exam was largely due to the major cities of Bishkek and Osh.

The percentage of applicants taking the NST test. Courtesy of Anastasia Valeeva.
The average NST score by regions. Courtesy of Anastasia Valeeva.
As a result, schoolchildren, especially those from the regions, often fail the NST, do not to enroll in college or university, and join the ranks of migrant workers – mostly as unskilled laborers. This creates a vicious cycle of poverty, social vulnerability, and inequality.

To smooth it out, the state needs a comprehensive assessment of schools based on a number of criteria so that detailed recommendations can be made. The assessment should take into consideration the skills and experience of teachers, access to educational materials, and intermediate performance of schoolchildren. The indicators of education quality that we have today make it difficult to determine critical points in the education system. This, in turn, hinders making recommendations for improving the system.

Root causes of inequality in education

Compulsory secondary education is characterized by a high level of non-attendance. Usually boys drop out because of the need to work, and girls drop out because of early marriages. Overall, statistics show that poverty in the aggregate is the main reason for systematic school non-attendance.  It stems from several factors, including the need to work, a dysfunctional family, and a difficult financial situation.

 If a decision needs to be made for a child to study or work, the family makes a choice in favor of the latter.
At the same time, the poorer the family, the closer education expenditures are to zero. That is, tutors, computers, or additional books are not available for children from such families. If a decision needs to be made for a child to study or work, the family makes a choice in favor of the latter. Therefore, targeted assistance is needed for families in which children drop out of school due to economic problems.

The government of Kyrgyzstan spends more than a quarter of its budget on the education system. This fact alone is an indication of priority given to education. This figure is higher in Kyrgyzstan than in neighboring countries. Only in Tajikistan are the figures comparable. It is difficult to imagine how the share of expenditure devoted to education can be further increased in relation to what is allocated by the state today. However, in terms of absolute values, the picture is rather grim, and it is clear that these expenditures are not sufficient for full development of the education system. Clearly, there is a need for more private investment and an active participation of international organizations.

Implications

Secondary education in Kyrgyzstan is in crisis and in need of proper reform. The results of nationwide testing reveal a high level of inequality in access to knowledge, where the most vulnerable are schoolchildren from poor regions. Moreover, compulsory secondary education is characterized by a high level of non-attendance, the main cause of which is economic hardships. Thus, the country is faced with the critical task of equalizing access to high-quality secondary education. 

In order start addressing the problem, the following steps should be taken:

  • Conduct a comprehensive assessment of schools in Kyrgyzstan on indicators such as the number of students per teacher, teachers’ skills, etc., and develop specific recommendations based on it. There is a need for a state-approved plan for strategic development of secondary education.
  • Public-private partnerships and by-laws should be further developed. Given the limited budget and a significant share of educational expenses, the system needs infrastructure investments and the simplification of relevant procedures.
  • It is necessary to attract other types of private investment in education. In particular, targeted scholarship assistance should be provided for families in which children drop out of school because of economic hardships.
  • Prior to the release of a strategic document by the state, donor programs should concentrate on schools in rural and remote regions, with a focus on long-term investment in the quality of education through the acquisition of textbooks and development of teachers’ skills
  • Students preparing for the NST should be provided with grants. Funds should be raised to provide schoolchildren from poor regions with such grants.

Anastasia Valeeva is a graduate of the CABAR.asia Summer School of Expert Analytics 

[1] http://edu.gov.kg/ru/news/ministerstvo-obrazovaniya-i-nauki-opublikovalo-spisok-shkolnikov-kotorye-pretenduyut-na-grantovye-mesta-v-vuzy-strany/

[2] http://testing.kg/ru/ort-test/o-teste.html

[3] http://testing.kg/ru/obyavlenija/pochemu-rezultaty-ort-ne-mogut-byt-ispolzovany-dlja-ocenki-kachestva-raboty-shkoly..html

[4] http://edu.gov.kg/ru/news/mon-znachitelno-uvelichilos-srednee-kolichestvo-nabrannyh-na-ort-ballov-po-regionam/


This article was prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project implemented with the financial support of the Foreign Ministry of Norway.

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