Language Education in Egyptian Schools
Currently, an increasing number of children are enrolled in kindergarten classes, but still, most Egyptian students join public schools in Grade 1 (Krafft, 2015). Egypt has a compulsory education system that runs from Grade 1 to Grade 9. Grade 1 to Grade 6 are usually called the primary stage, while Grade 7 to Grade 9 refer to the preparatory stage. Upon completing their preparatory education, students either join general or vocational secondary schools. The decision is made based on their overall score on their Grade 9 exams. From Grade 1 to Grade 12, Arabic is taught as a first language nationwide. English is the most popular foreign language and is usually taught from Grade 1, while French is the most common second foreign language and is introduced in Grade 10.
Teaching languages in Egyptian schools tends to follow a rather traditional approach with substantial emphasis on teaching grammar. While there has been a remarkable movement towards developing and using standards for language teaching in schools, these standards are usually textbook-driven, as is the case with teaching Arabic in Middle Eastern countries (Taha-Thomure, 2008). Depending mainly on textbooks is problematic in a number of ways. According to Gebril (2018a, 2018b), when language teaching is restricted only to textbook activities, it can lead to limiting the curriculum scope and restricting teacher creativity. On a related note, this practice leaves little leeway for teachers in terms of selecting instructional materials and experimenting with new techniques. These challenges and other ones have affected student performance in language classes. In a recent report by the World Bank (2018), data showed that one in five students cannot read a single word in Grade 3 and they usually join Grade 4 as “functionally illiterate.” The report also referred to the fact that 50 percent of students in Grade 5 cannot read or write.
Assessment Policy in Egyptian Schools
Tests are not usually neutral, value-free tools and they tend to reflect agendas that go beyond the target construct or ability of interest (McNamara & Roever, 2006). Educational policies in Egypt back in the early 1800s focused on recruiting qualified candidates for government posts, mainly the army, as indicated earlier. These policies continued throughout the 1800s, and exams were usually used to support learning. In a document written by an Egyptian education officer in the 1800s, exams were described as a tool to make learning more “fun” (Aly, 2015). However, substantial changes to this policy were introduced after the British occupation in 1882. Investment in education was substantially reduced and public schools started charging higher fees. Cochran (1986) argues that the British policy was due to a budget crisis, but more importantly, because of their concerns about potential civil unrest. As part of this new policy, English became the medium of instruction in public schools, and graduates of these schools were usually hired for government posts once they passed their secondary school certificate exams. In addition to public schools, language schools established by foreigners, especially missionaries, became very popular (Barsoum, 2004). The British used exams as an intimidation strategy in order to terrorize students and limit access to education (Morsy & Aly, 1980). The same arguments have always been highlighted by other researchers investigating the history of education in Egypt. For example, Mansfield (1971) states that “no aspect of the British occupation of Egypt is more open to criticism than its effect on education” (p. 139).
After the 1952 revolution, the government made public education free to all Egyptians and substantially improved access to education. This expansion required building a large number of schools and, consequently, increasing the education budget. In addition, massive hiring of teachers took place to fill the posts in these new schools. Unfortunately during this period, the focus was on quantity rather than on quality. This policy caused many problems that the educational system in Egypt still suffers from to this day. Attempting to streamline services, the government put a centralized educational system in place whose main task was to promote national unity. Arabic became the medium of instruction in all public schools and students used the same textbooks nationwide. In such a centralized system, the main purpose was to hold teachers, students, and schools accountable, and that is why the accountability function of assessment was emphasized over real learning.
From 1952 until today, assessment of learning outcomes in Egyptian schools has been dominated by practices endorsing the accountability function of assessment. In such a setting, results of final exams are usually used to either hold students accountable for their academic performance or as an indicator of school and teacher quality. These summative-ori- ented practices have created a learning context where exams are given priority over real learning in classes, where activities are geared toward test preparation activities rather than developing real learning (Gebril & Eid, 2017). During this time, all school graduates were guaranteed jobs in the public sectors. This situation has resulted in what Dore (1976) calls the “diploma disease,” as admission to higher education and later employment are the main motives behind schooling.
Many attempts have been made to move away from summative exams and to pay more attention to formative assessment tools. For example, in an attempt to create a more learning-oriented assessment environment, the Egyptian Ministry of Education recently introduced a host of formative assessment practices in schools under what is called the Comprehensive Assessment (CA) Initiative. The policy was envisioned to make assessment an integral part of learning, change it to an ongoing process, and employ alternative assessment tools along with traditional exams. The policy was implemented in elementary and preparatory schools for almost five years. However, this policy did not achieve the expected goals for a number of reasons, and eventually, the Ministry decided to stop its implementation. First, it seems that there was a discrepancy between how teachers conceived of assessment and the CA policy itself. While the policy attempted to promote formative assessment practices, teachers have always used summative activities that are in line with accountability requirements. Second, many teachers did not have the skills needed to fulfil the requirements of the proposed policy. A number of contextual factors also contributed to the ineffectiveness of the CA policy, such as consequences and conditions of assessment.
As described earlier, Arabic is taught as the primary language and is used as the medium of instruction in mainstream public schools. English is taught as a first foreign language in the majority of these schools, and French is the second foreign language. While the language curricula attempt to follow a rather communicative approach to teaching, assessment of learning outcomes are still traditional in terms of format and content. Starting from Grade 1, summative exams are the norm, with end-of-term and end-of-year tests constituting a substantial percentage of the total grade. Monthly exams are also common; however, they are not sufficiently used for formative purposes. These exams are usually written within schools according to specifications sent by the Ministry of Education. The National Centre for Examinations and Educational Evaluation (NCEEE) is usually responsible for providing these guidelines. While exams from Grade 1 to Grade 5 are usually developed in schools, the Grade 6 exam, which has high stakes and is used to make exit decisions from primary school, is a governorate-wide test. Similar patterns are used in preparatory schools, with Grade 7 and Grade 8 exams being developed within schools, while Grade 9 exams are administered governorate-wide. Grade 9 exams are used to make exit decisions from the basic education stage and are also employed to place students in different types of secondary schools. Students who obtain high scores on this exam join general secondary schools, while those obtaining low scores tend to study in less prestigious vocational secondary schools. The score on the Grade 9 exam also decides which school students will join.
The stakes for exams become higher in secondary schools since the secondary school certificate exam (the tbanaweya amma exam -TAE) is used to make exit decisions and is also used as a university admission test. The TAE is a nationwide test that is given to Grade 12 students and the total score decides which university program a student can join. Since the TAE is the only indicator for making such a decision, the stakes are too high. As described in the literature (e.g., Gebril & Brown, 2014; Gebril & Eid, 2017), families spend a substantial percentage of their income on preparing students for exams in the form of private tutoring. Recent statistics from the Egyptian Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS) state that 42 percent of family spending on education goes to private tutoring (Gebril &c Brown, 2014).
Most instructional practices in foreign language classes focus on teach- ing-to-the-test activities. Gebril and Eid (2017) looked into how teachers prepare their students for the TAE in Egypt. The researchers sought teachers’ feedback on test preparation activities using a questionnaire and a follow-up interview. The study showed a wide range of harmful effects on teaching and learning. For example, the authors reported that teaching to the test practices comes at the expense of real learning. Teachers and students usually spend most of their class time working on test-related tasks rather than practicing language skills. On a related note, the TAE usually results in narrowing the curriculum scope since teachers and students pay more attention to test content and not to learning outcomes targeted in this curriculum. Since the TAE does not include listening and speaking tasks, these skills are often ignored in language classes, with more emphasis given to skills included on the test, such as reading, writing, and grammar.