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Fears about School Exams Exaggerated

Parents of school students in Moscow tend to believe that test assignments in two major final exams—the Basic State Exam (BSE) and the Unified State Exam (USE)—are too complex and teachers fail to properly prepare students for the finals; this negative attitude, which appears to be a widely-held stereotype not necessarily supported by evidence, is formed long before the exams come round. However, according to a study by Alina Pishnyak and Natalia Khalina, once the exams are over, families no longer consider them so hard to pass.

Family attitudes towards final school exams, particularly the Basic State Exam (BSE, previously SAE – the State Attestation Exam taken at the end of the 9th grade), change once the exam is over, and the chances of passing it successfully are no longer regarded as extremely low. In fact, once their children pass the BSE and go on to the 10th grade, most parents agree that students do not really need any additional classes to prepare for the exam.

In their paper Barriers to Passing the State Final Exams as Perceived by School Students' Parents in Moscow, Pishnyak, Associate Professor of the HSE Department of Economic Sociology and Deputy Director of the Megapolis Humanitarian Development Institute (IMHD), and Khalina, IMHD research fellow, summarised their findings from a survey of 1,516 parents of school students from the 1st to 11th grades, conducted by the IMHD in Moscow in 2014.

However, many of the parents’ concerns about the final exams may reflect widely-held stereotypes – such as the opinion that schools fail to properly prepare students for the tests. Interestingly, parents of junior as well as senior students share this opinion, indicating that it is formed well before the BSE and USE take place and, quite possibly, "merely reflects a popular stereotype and is only partly based on evidence," according to Pishnyak and Khalina.

Parents Have Higher Expectations of the Basic Exam

Most respondents define good performance at the BSE and USE as between 70 and 77 points, depending on the subject; e.g. 71.3 and 74 in mathematics and 73.2 and 76.5 in Russian at the BSE and USE, respectively.

These expectations, however, are much higher than the actual average scores, according to the researchers. Thus, in 2013, the average score for Russian in the USE stood at 64.5, i.e. lower by 12 points than the parents' expectation, while in mathematics, the gap between the actual and expected score at the USE was even wider at 24 points (the actual 49.3 vs. the expected 74).

More parents expect their children to score more highly in the BSE than in the USE; according to the survey, "more than 40% of parents expect their children to score highly in mathematics in the BSE and only 10% in the USE." The share of parents who would be happy if their children scored just enough to pass the mathematics exam is 7% for the BSE and 39% for the USE; similarly, in terms of other subjects, at least 40% of parents expect their children to score higher than the passing point in the BSE and just 10% to 14% in the USE (10% in Russian, 14% in the foreign language, and 12% in the elective subject).

Since the above numbers are based on responses given by parents of students who have and have not yet taken the BSE and USE, they reflect objective post-factum assessments as well as parents' expectations of the exams.

Test Assignments Blamed for Poor Performance

According to many respondents, excessively complicated and confusing test assignments are considered the single biggest obstacle to passing both the BSE and USE (57% and 65%, respectively), followed by two other major obstacles, namely poorly designed school courses (31% and 36%) and insufficient time for preparation (18% and 21%).

As to other obstacles, their relative importance differs depending on the exam; thus, students’ psychological characteristics and teacher competence seem to matter more for performance at the BSE than the USE (32% and 15% vs. 16% and 10%, respectively); by contrast, students’ lack of ability and insufficient resources to prepare for the exam are mentioned far more often in the context of the USE – 32% vs 19% (lack of ability) and 19% vs. 10% (lack of resources) for the BSE and USE, respectively.

Not So Hard to Pass

By summarising the most common types of responses, Pishnyak and Khalina have identified the three key obstacles to passing the BSE and USE successfully, from the parents' perspective, namely:

  • content of the exams;
  • students' individual characteristics; and
  • inadequate teachers and/or courses.

As far as the BSE is concerned, 57% of the entire sample blame the content, followed by 43% who believe that students’ individual characteristics play a role, and 37% who insist that inadequate teachers and courses are responsible for students’ poor performance in the exam. Regarding the USE, 65% blame the content, 44% mention students’ characteristics, and 41% point to problems with courses and teachers.

Interestingly, how parents feel about the complexity of the exam tends to change over time both before and after the exams. As the exams approach, familiies increasingly perceive the test assignments as too difficult (Fig. 1; the rise of the broken dark blue line on both sides of the graph indicating the exam content).

However, after the BSE, the proportion of parents criticising the tests decreases (the blue line peaks at above 65% and then drops to 57%). Even though the sample did not include parents whose children have passed the USE and thus finished school, Pishnyak and Khalina assume that "likewise, the USE test assignments may no longer seem so difficult after the exam." A similar change in opinion is observed regarding the "inadequate teachers and courses" arguments (the broken green line).

Parents Prepared to Invest

The study's authors examined other issues associated with the school finals by asking the respondents to rate a series of statements about the USE and BSE on a scale of one to five (one meaning 'completely disagree' and five 'completely agree').

The statement suggesting that 'one cannot pass the USE without additional classes' was supported by 41% of the respondents who completely agreed with it (3.9 of 5 on average); the second most popular statement supported by 38% of the respondents was that one must begin preparing for the final exams well before time (3.9 for the BSE and 4.1 for the USE), followed by the statement that preparing for the exams is a major time investment (29% completely agree with it with regard to the BSE and 37% with regard to the USE). In addition to that, about one third of the sample mentioned that all the school students they know were taking additional classes to prepare them for the USE.

The respondents were asked about financial investment in preparing students for the school finals; 15% said that preparation for the BSE required a major investment of money, and 26% said the same about preparation for the USE.

Teachers Add to the Tension

Comments from focus groups complement the survey responses, in particular by pinpointing the main sources of tension, particularly uncertainty about the rules of the game; according to some parents, the rules governing the school finals are revised every year. In addition, some parents mentioned the widely varying teacher performance – as one respondent put it, "Some [teachers] cover their subject in depth, while some others offer very little."

Another source of tension is uncertainty about the exam content – some respondents believe that test assignments may contain questions outside the studied content. Yet another problem is that teachers, starting from junior grades, reportedly use the final exams to pressure students causing stress in both students and their parents.

In summary, preparation for the school finals as well as actually taking the exams are stressful for both students and their parents and asociated with an increased workload and investment of time and money. Once the exams are over, however, the formerly perceived obstacles to passing the tests – such as difficult assignments and inadequate school courses – no longer appear insurmountable.


Author: Olga Sobolevskaya, August 28, 2015