High-Stakes Test Preparation in a Time of COVID-19

School suspensions across Africa during COVID-19 disrupted learning for all pupils, but particularly those preparing for school-leaving examinations. School-leaving exams have enormous implications on pupils’ future educational and employment outcomes, including secondary school completion and future income. During national lockdowns, pupils have lacked in-class preparation and access to test-prep materials normally distributed via schools.

No matter whether governments ultimately cancel, postpone, or modify these exams, pupils will have missed out on the primary opportunity for test-prep: in-person lessons. Schools also distribute test-prep resources, including mock exams, test-prep books, and after-school tutoring. 

Pupils and families are thus forced to rely on distance-learning materials, which are often challenging to access. Virtual instruction via Google Classrooms or Zoom is available for only a small minority of pupils with access to home computers and sufficient bandwidth. Tutoring is available only for families with financial resources. 

Many apps do provide open-access learning opportunities, but with two significant problems. First, these apps tend to use large amounts of data, both to download and to access game-based or streaming video content. Second, the majority of these apps are targeted towards western (primarily American and British) exams, which often bear little resemblance to the format and content of high-stakes assessments in Africa. 

Effect of a Test Prep Program

COVID-19 is a new challenge, but effective preparation for high-stakes testing is not. Dr. Beth Schueler and Daniel Rodriguez-Segura (University of Virginia) evaluated a residential Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) prep program in Kenya, hosted by school operator, Bridge. The KCPE is a high stakes national exam in Kenya at the end of primary school which determines the type of secondary school a child is eligible to attend. Bridge pupils have entered the KCPE since 2015 and significantly outperform national averages. The residential program is designed to support pupils to succeed in this national exam and is focused on the five subjects tested on the KCPE. Using a randomized control trial (RCT) design, the team evaluated the effects of attendance on KCPE scores. 

Attending the program had a small, positive effect on KCPE scores.  This translated into scores that were 2.1 points higher on a 500-point scale. But one group of pupils benefited significantly from the program: those attending schools from which three or fewer pupils were nominated to attend. These ‘low-representation’ pupils on average gained 15.1 points on the KCPE, more than 7 times the average gain for all pupils. The authors found suggestive evidence that this was because these pupils had less access to KCPE preparation resources at home. Therefore, a residential in-person program has limited effect if children already have access to test prep materials at home; a finding that could help shape the approach that organizations and parents take in supporting their children to prepare for high stake exams. 

While a residential prep program is not currently viable, these findings do highlight a central issue of test-prep, especially during a time of COVID-19: the effectiveness of test-prep program is closely related to a pupil’s access to contextually relevant test prep resources at home. These resources likely form a foundation for supplementary programming like tutoring and residential test-prep.

Mobile-Friendly Quizzes

Many organizations are attempting to tackle this challenge, especially during COVID-19 when schools are closed but exams are still likely to take place. How do you help your child prepare? The Virginia study has emphasized the importance of prep materials at home, which are still accessible despite ongoing school closures. Bridge has designed a program that provides free and open access to thousands of quizzes aligned with the Kenyan national curricula. These quizzes are delivered via WhatsApp or SMS, which allow parents and children to access the material on platforms that they already use, and with minimal data charges. They select from a range of five-question quizzes. The platform provides instantaneous feedback after each response and a summative score at the end of each quiz.

As part of this platform, translated past papers for the KCPE are available as mobile-friendly quizzes. And unlike paper mock-tests, these interactive quizzes are free, accessible on familiar platforms for parents, and provide instant corrective feedback after each answer. This last feature is particularly important, because the value of feedback is closely related to its proximity to the act of answering by the student. 

Effective at-home test prep must have two core focal areas:

  • Awareness: Parents are flooded with choice. Schools and educational organizations must be trusted voices in this landscape, and use their unique outreach capabilities (SMS messages, WhatsApp groups) to recommend high-quality, accessible test prep methods.
  • Access: Distance-learning approaches must meet parents where they are at. This means no new tools or apps; instead, we must work through already popular tools in the community as the primary access channel. Telecom companies and governments can take an active role by supporting organizations offering interactive digital test-prep to obtain short codes, which enable access to these platforms via SMS. Telecom companies can also zero-rate data charges incurred during the use of these distance-learning materials in order to achieve near-universal access in most countries.

The educational effects of lockdown could be felt for a generation if schools and educational organizations cannot move quickly to mitigate the loss of learning stemming from school closures. But more immediately, we have a duty to pupils preparing for high-stakes tests; their scores will play an outsized role in their future learning and earning potential. For this reason, we must work together, as educators, to ensure that these pupils receive accessible, high-quality, and contextualized test prep opportunities.

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