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Jordan’s Decision to Shake Up University Admissions Stirs Controversy

(Updated: 22 Oct 2017)

AMMAN, Jordan—Students and their families here have long been unhappy with the importance placed on a single, pass-fail high-school exit exam that determines who gets into a university and what they can study. But a decision to eliminate that exam and give universities more control over admissions is raising worries, too, among students, educators, and university administrators.

Omar al-Razzaz, the minister of education, announced the planned change earlier this year. In a television interview in March, Razzaz said that the kingdom’s existing system for measuring high-school success, known as the Tawjihi, was too arbitrary. “What does it mean to let those who get 50 percent pass the exam while those who get an average of 49 percent would fail?” he asked. “This examination system is marginalizing students’ talents and abilities.”

Under the old system, students earned a certificate of high-school completion if they passed the test with a score of 50 percent or better in each of 10 subject areas, and met other conditions related to attendance and conduct. If they scored less than 50 percent in two or more subjects, they had to repeat the exam.

Under the new plan, which takes effect next year, students will receive a score based on their performance on all subjects on the exam, with a maximum of 1,400 points, Razzaz said. He said at the time that universities had been instructed to consider students as having successfully completed high school regardless of their marks in each subject.

“There will be no failed students and everyone can complete their studies,” Razzaz told a local radio station.

But many students were not enthusiastic about the new plan.

“The decision seems surprising and vague,” said Idris Hussein, a 12th-grade student at the General High School’s scientific branch. “I want to study engineering, but it is not clear how students will be admitted to colleges.”

Since Hussein commented, officials have announced more details of how the new system will work.

At a news conference on October 22, Razzaz and the minister of higher education said that on the new exam, students will be tested on seven subjects instead of 10. The maximum total score on all seven subjects will be 1,400 points. To pass, students will need to get 50 percent of the points allotted to each subject, and 40 percent of the total points.

To enroll at a public university, students should get at least 910 points, the officials said. The threshold for private universities will be 840 points. In addition, each university will determine the points needed to enroll in different majors.

The newly announced details seem to represent a step back from some of Razzaz’s previous statements, perhaps reflecting concessions to the widely expressed concerns about the plan.

But many education leaders and other experts have spoken in favor of the decision, saying they believed a change was necessary for educational and social reasons.

“The old system was a cause of concern for students because any student who does not get 50 percent or more in each course will have to retake the course or repeat the whole school year because of a low mark in a single course among many,” said Hossam Awwad, publisher of Al Awael Educational website.

Fayez al-Saudi, a former minister of education in Jordan, said the decision was also a response to other factors. “The students are under intense social and psychological stress because a single mark can lead to their failure,” he said.

Recently, several Arab countries have reconsidered their high-school exams and university admissions policies. In August, Egypt’s minister of education announced major changes in that country’s system of evaluating students’ success in high school. The new system adopts a cumulative assessment of students’ performance throughout three years of secondary school, rather than being based on a single test. Some educators there, however, have raised concerns  about potential drawbacks in the plan. (See a related article: “Egypt Plans Radical Change in Measuring High-School Success”)

Just as in Egypt, many in Jordan are concerned that the new plan may have negative consequences for the quality of education in the kingdom.

Speaking before the new details were announced, Fakher Daas, the coordinator of an organization known as Thabahtoona that advocates for students’ rights, said he thought the plan was harmful to students’ interests. “What would motivate students to study if they have guaranteed their success and university enrollment? Could students with poor Arabic join universities and study there?” he said. “The new decision does not seem to be complete and requires a lot of explanations.”

Daas suspects the decision had a further purpose. He sees it as a first step toward abolishing the secondary-certification process and moving toward direct university admissions. “This would raise the number of admissions for profit purposes,” he said, and could lead “to the privatization of universities in the end.” (See a related article: “Rising Tuition in Jordan Highlights Flawed University Finances”)

The Thabahtoona campaign issued a statement demanding that the ministry of education reverse its decision. While a complete reversal seems unlikely, the continuing public debate and the statement by the ministers of education and higher education suggest that officials will continue to reconsider details of the decision.

Making more modifications would be a good thing in Daas’s view, especially with the absence of a clear view of “education reform and its purpose,” he said.


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