Interview with the Director of the National Assessment and Examinations Center Dr. Sophia Gorgodze
(Adapted from Georgian version)
Due to Covid-19 pandemic, new medical recommendations might be developed for the Unified National Examinations 2021. The NAEC is already collaborating with the relevant institutions to ensure the safety of the examinees and avoid COVID-19 transmission.
As of March 31, more than 38,300 entrants registered for the Unified National Examinations. More than 3,700 students expressed their desire to participate in the Student Grant Competition, more than 12,800 Master’s degree candidates registered for the Master’s Exam. More than 28,700 applicants registered to take the Teacher Competency Test.
“InterpressNews” talked to Dr. Sophia Gorgodze, the director of the National Assessment and Examinations Center to find out whether the entrants infected with Covid-19 will take exams at home or if the Center plans to conduct a new exams for such applicants. This and other interesting exam updates were highlighted during the interview.
Last year, the National Assessment and Examinations Center had to adapt examination procedures for an infected applicant in Force Majeure. What is planned in this direction this year? Are you going to arrange special spaces for Covid-19 infected applicants?
I do believe, last years’ experience will greatly help us in organizing and conducting examinations 2021. Last year we had to work under completely different circumstances, everything was new, but actually, the scheme worked well. Based on the existing practice, we consider ourselves more prepared this year. We had initial communication with health professionals. They assume that the recommendations made last year are relevant, but of course there’s still a chance that they will be revised and amended depending on the epid-situation we will have 2 weeks before the exams. I do not think radical changes will be necessary to be made, however, it is too early to talk about it now, we continue to keep track of the situation. The week prior to examinations 2021 applicants will be fully informed about the procedures.
Which part of the recommendations might be revised? Do you think that due to the number of infected people, the exam dates might be questioned and this process might be postponed?
One thing that can be specified is how infected entrants should be managed and whether they can take exams at specially designed spaces. By the time the exams approach, we will know approximately how many infected applicants we might have and as a result of these statistics, the Ministry of Health will give us final recommendations. Last year, when only two entrants were infected, we were directly involved in organizing the testing for that entrant. The examination was conducted at the hospital and it required huge effort and resources. But it was possible at that moment. However, if there will be 10-20 and 30 applicants, they should be treated differently. Now we cannot say anything in particular, it depends on the statistics, how many infected entrants we will have, relevant steps will be taken in accordance with the situation.
Do you consider planning resits for Covid-19 infected applicants?
Resits might be challenging due to several issues. One is that exams are quite a long process, lasting almost a month. It is also against the principle of such high-stakes centralized exam where you have several test versions, when you have to equate the different versions, and publish all used tests after the exams, . Going through this whole process again after one or two months might be tricky. On the one hand versions of assessment instruments cannot be completely different from each other. Giving a similar version to these entrants after two months following publishing the tests will be unfair to students who took the exam earlier and felt less prepared. In addition, university enrollments in such a case will not take place in August. Everything will be delayed and the academic year might not start on time either.
How about allocating specially equipped spaces to infected entrants?
We have had similar spaces reserved for entrants with high temperature and, of course, there is a chance that we will allocate them now for Covid-19 infected entrants as well. However, I cannot tell you anything in advance. If public healthcare professionals say it is risky, off course we cannot do it. If we are told that this is possible, we will be ready.
Does the restriction on the number of entrants in the examination space remain the same regarding no more than 10 entrants in one space?
This regulation remains the same. Two-meter distance between the desks also applies to this year’s exams.
The Center conducted the exam in the hospital last year, is it expected that the infected entrants might take exams remotely from homes and proctored through the video surveillance system? Are you considering conducting examinations at any alternative space?
Infected applicants will not take exams remotely from homes, however various options are being discussed and we’ll inform the public about the latest updates.
According to the last year’s regulations if the temperature reached 30 degrees inside, it was allowed to turn on the air conditioning, therefore the applicants were bound to put on face masks which they had removed while writing. Will this rule still be in force?
Yes, to this point this rule remains the same. We had transparent plastic covers in front of each desk which allowed us to take such decision.
Do you plan to increase or reduce the number of exam centers?
The number of exam centers will be known after the 15th of April as soon as the registration process is concluded. In case of necessity we’ll provide additional exam centers, however, the same 24 exam centers might be enough.
Last year, specialists recommended to use open spaces (stadiums, open fields) and even shifting an exam schedule from mornings to evenings. In their point of view, this would cause fewer threats. Do you consider anything like this?
This case-scenario is not considered due to the fact that we conduct exams in summer, we do not know what the weather will be like and conducting it in the open space will cause many difficulties. Sitting an exam at the stadium in the heat of July, I think, is unrealistic.
How will the process be carried out for convicted and accused applicants?
So far, we only have some preliminary data according to which 17 convicts are going to take the exams. However, there might be cases when an applicant got in trouble after the registration was concluded. Therefore, we actively cooperate with the Ministry of Education and Science of Georgia and the Penitentiary Service and do try to support the applicants’ endeavors to take Unified National Examinations. If it is a special case and the Penitentiary Service deems that the convict or accused should not be allowed to take the test, we cannot intervene. Otherwise, we have an isolated entrance for such applicants, special rooms are allocated for them to sit an exam.
Let me ask you about the minimum threshold for the exam. Will the threshold be increased or decreased for any subject?
The percentage of the test threshold of any subject has not changed this year. In mathematics and foreign languages this is more than 20% of the maximum points, in General Abilities Test- more than 30% and in all other subjects more than 25% of the maximum score points.
As for the content of the tests, what kind of changes are planned? What issues, topics have been added or subtracted from the tests?
There have been no amendments in the examination programs this year as significant changes would have caused additional stress for applicants during the pandemic. We only reduced exam duration where it was possible. This applies to mathematics, physics and chemistry, time limit for these subjects has been reduced by half an hour. The decision was made after carefully analyzing the content and the duration of each test.
You mentioned that the exam duration has been decreased, have the number of items also been deducted?
The number of test assignments have also been reduced, it would have been unfair to leave the same number of questions and reduce the exam time. The difficulty of the test has not changed, but due to the fact that the number of assignments has been reduced and the entrant will spend less time, they will be less tired and this will also make the writing process easier.
The answer sheets were kept in quarantine for several days last year. You claimed that “paper might be one of the transmitters of the virus.” Are you planning to switch to e-assessment in general?
Currently we have a blended format, which means that the entrant sees the task on the computer screen and marks the answer on the answer sheet. We obviously want to switch to a fully electronic system and it will be a progressive step. We are working on this, but within the framework of another project “Assessment for Development” – we are preparing 4th and 6th grade assessments at this stage and we are in a pilot stage. We want to introduce a fully electronic system here. Let’s see how it works and if it turns out to work well, then maybe we should start thinking about introducing this format in case of other exams as well. 4th and 6th grade assessments will be diagnostic . We are still working on this program and try out has been conducted in hundreds of schools. This project aims to provide more information to the teacher, parent and student about where they are at that stage.
When is it planned to conduct the Unified National Examinations with a fully electronic system? Will this happen by 2024?
I cannot tell you the exact date of the fully electronic Unified National Examinations, as for the 4th, 6th grade assessments, it will take place as soon as we assume that this system has successfully been piloted and we are ready to implement nationwide. This issue also depends on the ICT infrustructure in schools. In case of centralized assessment, all schools should have a certain number of computers in order to engage in similar electronic assessments. Anyway, we will at least start with the schools that have the required capacity.
I would like to ask you about the quality of education, what kind of challenges did distance learning reveal?
In general, everyone, including international organizations like UNICEF agrees upon the fact that the pandemic was a challenge for the world education system. Georgia was also confronted with new educational reality of Covid-19. However, taking into consideration the available resources, I think our country has coped well so far. As for the context of the exams there were challenges worldwide – even England, which has a better functioning education system, cancelled the centralized exam last year; Rather they chose to use a specific algorithm, the students’ scores were calculated and enrolled in such a way that various publications, including the BBC, estimated that England had an exam fiasco. We did a better job than we thought we would. We conducted the exams centrally in the examination centers and enrolled the entrants successfully without spreading the infection.
Did you consider conducting Unified National Examinations in a different format last year?
The only other format that could have been possible was to run the process remotely. For example, if entrants took the test at home and we had a good means of monitoring. However, if this could be the solution, other leading European countries would also use this method. We didn’t have a tested assessment system with good proctoring capabilities. A similar monitoring technology (proctoring) is currently being developed by leading technology companies, which needs to be well piloted and has not yet been used widely. We did not have this system and even if we bought one, we could not be sure that everything would go smoothly and exams would be fair.
The Ministry of Education and Science did not rule out that from 2023-24 the national exams would be abolished and one combined exam would be held. Have you started working in this direction?
No such thing is being discussed at this stage, although the Ministry considers that it is possible to make this model of higher education entry more diverse. Enrollment in higher education institutions can happen not only through the scores of the Unified National Examinations, but also using additional criteria. This type of discussion is ongoing, though it is at an early stage and nothing is clear yet.
Don’t you think that including other criteria might entail some risks of corruption?
Such changes might entail the risks of corruption, which is why for more than 15 years we have, in fact, an unchanged, strictly centralized examination system, where only way to be enrolled at higher education institution is to pass the Unified National Examinations successfully. However, we should think about making the system more flexible, more diversified, decentralized, and add other components to enrollment process. When it will start and whether we are ready it is a matter of debate. There is a lot of work to be done to ensure that the new examination system has at least the same support from the public as the existing system, where there are no question marks in terms of fairness of the process.
As for conducting a single combined test, even if this happens, it will not significantly improve the system. Again, we will have a strictly centralized and single criterion-based approach. At the same time on that one exam a student may get sick, get a low score, when with the result of three exams he has more chances to demonstrate his abilities and get into university. So, one combined test can be even worse if no other component of the enrollment is added. In the future, we should think about system development, so that we also consider entrants needs and introduce needs-based funding for example, as is the case in many developed countries.
Since we are talking about assessing the student’s level of achievement, do Georgian schools equip students with proper knowledge and skills? What subjects are difficult for students nowadays? In what subject exams were the worst and the best results? Has the situation changed for the better or has the situation worsened over the years?
We participate in multiple international assessments, for example PIRLS, which is a literacy study that tests the knowledge and skills of 4th graders, PISA, which tests the skills of 15 year olds in literacy mathematics and science. We also have national assessments. The results of these studies are not really encouraging, although we have small shifts in specific directions. TIMSS 2019 study gave us the basis for optimism, where 4th graders significantly improved their achievement in mathematics, and this improvement happened due to the students living in rural areas. With this study, Georgia is among the three countries that have significantly improved their results. The subject of a separate study is what this improvement might be related to. As for other areas, for example, the PISA 2018 – this research cycle focused on literacy. Unfortunately, we did not have a good result. If the student has difficulty with reading comprehension, they will face problems in all other subjects. Also, there are still challenges in the sciences and mathematics – there is work to be done in this direction. One of the subjects that children find difficult when observing national exam results is physics. The same applies to teachers’ exam outcomes.
According to the reform carried out by the Ministry of Education and Science of Georgia, part of the retired teachers has left schools and received compensation in exchange for leaving the profession. How many teachers have left the profession in total and what has this process shown? Did system improve and did this affect the quality of learning?
As I remember, about 8,000 teachers left the profession, which was a good step towards improving the system. The average age of teachers in Georgia was very high compared to other countries, which is a problem in itself. During this period, such an initiative was timely. The increased interest of those entering the profession is probably due to this fact. As I mentioned, this year more than 28,700 people are registered in total, both those who want to enter the profession and practicing teachers. Out of this number, approximately 8,700 are practicing teachers, and more than 1,800 special educators who will take this exam for the first time this year and will work with students with special needs. More than 18,000 people are new candidates interested in teaching. We have never had so many new candidates registered for a qualifying exam, which can be related to many factors, and I think one of them is this reform initiative and popularization of teachers’ profession.
What is the failure rate for those entering the profession?
The failure rate is not low for those who want to teach. It is higher in the elementary grades and also in the direction of sports, where, unfortunately, many have failed compared to other subjects. They had to accumulate 61% of the maximum points. They seem to think that teaching sports/physical education is the easiest and come unprepared, or do not have enough resources to prepare.