Kenya: New KCSE Grading Fails to Lift Tail-End Performance as Adamant Curves Persist

Published on 6th February 2024

We are in the so-called Silicon Age, an interesting epoch in all respects. Kenya, the soi-disant Silicon Savanna, could take pride in leading the race for innovation hubs in Africa, but finding a lasting answer to quality education and skills development remains an elusive target for the East African giant, a nation whose public offices are full of ambitious and well-crafted but dust-gathering policy documents. If the twists and turns the country has traced in seeking the ultimate formal education and grading system are anything to go by, then 2023 marked yet another important turning point along the long and winding path of unending experimentation and exploration. In a tale of systematic and gross errors, the results of the 2023 national primary school examinations broke the hearts of learners, teachers, and parents alike. A new grading system experimented for the 2023 national secondary school examinations apparently inflated the middle range of the performance curve but left a long wagging tail drowning in a pool of D and E grades, the lowest scores attainable.

Key Highlights

1.An increase of about 20,000 in the number of students who sat KCSE in 2023 compared to 2022 defied the established trend from 2015, which has recorded an approximate annual increase ranging from 40,000 to 75,000. The slope in male enrolment trends has been milder, plunging in 2023, and allowing more progressive female enrolment since 2017 to catch up, close the gap, and achieve gender parity.

2.The National Examination Council should prepare for a higher number of KCSE candidates, as the trend projects their number to exceed one million in 2025.

3.The recently released results of Kenya’s pre-college qualification examination, the 2023 Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE), have once more traced an adamant performance curve for the low-end scores with 55% scoring from D+ to E, which was comparable to the share in 2022 and 2020, but lower than the 60% registered in 2019 and 2021 and the higher share of 66% and 68% witnessed in 2016 and 2018, respectively, with an extreme case peaking at 72% in 2017.

4.At 41%, the 2015 KCSE results posted a much lower share in the D+ to E bracket, but it is well understood that it was before the radical crackdown on runaway cartel-driven examination irregularities, which the dreaded and unrelenting Matiangi-Magoha duo initiated in 2016.

5.The new grading system adopted in 2023 considered only five subjects, taking three-best subject scores in addition to a compulsory inclusion of the scores for mathematics and the better-scored language between English and Kiswahili.

6.At slightly more than 22%, the new grading system may have increased the share of C+ scores and above to cross the 20% mark for the first time since 2016, but it has not taken away from the record of more than 32% witnessed in 2015 and earlier.

7.Evidently, as shown in a graphic visualisation of the grade distribution from 2015 to 2023, the new grading system introduced in 2023 is more of a painkiller than a cure for the grim tail-end performance. The cure lies in an education and grading system that can do justice to the multiple intelligences and talents of the diverse pool of learners in a new digital and borderless landscape influenced by dynamic labour markets.

Breaking News that Makes or Breaks Learners

On 8th January 2024, Kenya woke up to a major announcement – the release of the 2023 Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) results, based on which candidates would be admitted to various colleges and universities. Was KCSE better handled to stem the fiasco that characterised the release of the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) results? From the mood and feedback received thus far, citizens are not as vexed as they were with the glaringly mishandled and disappointing KCPE results released earlier. Anyone familiar with the theory of errors could immediately spot that the KCPE results were muddled in systematic errors and gross errors, not random errors. Systematic – because of the almost constant difference slashing off the expected marks of a whole class of candidates in many schools. Gross – because of the mistakes that assigned candidates marks for the papers they did not sit for or huge differences in marks arising from reviewed and reported cases, but only after pressure from disgruntled parents and teachers. An exposed, reviewed, and reported case in western Kenya established a wild difference of about 50 marks for a candidate. However, the errors were not random because random errors tend to be small and cancel out in average values owing to their unpredictable pattern of occurrence.

New Grading System, Old Patterns

This is the first time that a newly introduced KCSE grading system has been tested, taking the score on Mathematics, one better performed language – English or Kiswahili, and three other subjects posting better performance than the rest. This study plotted comparative graphs of performance trends from 2015 to 2023 to confirm that the new grading system has only boosted the B grades, leaving the extreme ends of the curve (A grades and D and E grades) largely mirroring past trends in the old grading system. Disappointingly and despite the new KCSE grading system in 2023, the share of E grades rose to 5.4% from 3.5% in 2022. In other words, the extreme cases of performance tend to be extreme in all the subjects examined. The graphical representation shows the trends from 2015. Evidently, there has been no return to the curve and percentages in the 2015 KCSE results, confirming the change in examination administration that has been in place since 2016.

There is a compelling need for alternative and compensating measures that can help do justice to the varied endowments of the diverse and growing sea of learners. Multiple intelligences reside within any population of learners, a theory attributed to Howard Gardner. Consequently, the dogged question is, “Has KCSE been heavily biased in rewarding logical-mathematical intelligence and linguistic intelligence at the expense of the other intelligences, such as naturalistic intelligence, spatial intelligence, musical intelligence, intrapersonal intelligence, interpersonal intelligence, bodily-kinesthetic intelligence, and critical evaluation?” Kenya’s new competency-based curriculum (CBC) will be judged by how effectively it will address this stubborn predicament of skewed training and assessment.

Notably, the trend in Kenya’s enrolment and pass rate for direct university entry portends a growing demand for skills-based education and training for 80% of post-secondary school learners, who make up the wider base of the demographic pyramid. Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) is gaining policy relevance. It can be projected that there will be 800,000 new TVET candidates coming in the year 2025, four times the number expected to join universities directly by that time. A harmonised and standard graduation model from TVET to professional degrees and postgraduate qualifications, complete with suitable bridging courses, appears to be the best support pathway we can offer our growing number of secondary school graduates.

Embracing an Alternative View of College Programmes

Most (80%) of the KCSE candidates are candidates for TVETs. Ultimately, embracing an alternative view is imperative for a rewarding experience in tertiary education and success in the future job market, which we refer to as the Future of Work. Learners, teachers, mentors, and parents must upend their choosy inclination towards the established big names: Medicine, Law, and Engineering. The new world of work will propel some non-traditional courses that are interdisciplinary and rich in global exposure to be in high demand in emerging labour markets, strongly influenced by Big Data and Artificial Intelligence. Many of these courses are already being offered in Kenyan universities (check with universities such as Taita Taveta – which also organises attractive annual exposure and networking trips to Germany for students, Multimedia, Maseno, Nairobi, JKUAT, KU, Dedan Kimathi, TUK, and TUM). Some capital-intensive and cutting-edge courses are offered in more developed countries such as Germany, Japan, Singapore, China, South Korea, the UK, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Australia, and the USA. It should be noted that these countries have well-established TVETs, including practice-oriented universities of applied sciences which have retained a culture of skills-based training for practical industry application, just the right focus of advanced polytechnics.

Thus, it is important to consider these promising courses or their variants, whether offered at the diploma or degree level: Data Science/Engineering, Artificial Intelligence, Cybersecurity, IT/ICT/BBIT & Digital Marketing, Geoinformatics/GIS/Geospatial Technology, Semiconductor Technology, Nanotechnology/Materials Science/Additive Manufacturing, Software/Computer Engineering, Chemistry, Biochemistry, Biotechnology/Molecular Biology/Synthetic Biology/Genetic Engineering, Conservation Biology, Biostatistics, Geoecology, Geomedicine, Nursing, Medical Laboratory Technology, Hearing Aid Audiology, Biogeography, Mining/Mineralogy/Geology, Urban Planning, Education, Linguistics/Natural Language Processing, Media and Film studies/Animation, Environmental Science/Environmental Planning & Management, and Shipping & Maritime Studies/Blue Economy. The list will continue to grow, but this sample is already a reliable compass for redirecting the raw ambition of gifted, passionate, and inquisitive young minds.


The curve for the 2023 KCSE results is not a major departure from the curves realised from 2016 to 2022. Changing the grading system still leaves the cause of poor tail-end performance intact, pointing to a different source for answers. Since 2016, the established trend has been that less than 20% of KCSE candidates qualify to join public universities directly. In 2023, the change in the grading system soared this share to cross the 20% mark and reach 22%. Although there could be some celebration of this outcome, the high percentage of students (55%) who still scored Ds and E confirms that quality education for the majority remains a critical challenge for the country. An effective intervention logic must address the root causes at the school level while ensuring a just transition for the high share of learners who did not achieve good grades. Achieving such a towering milestone calls for a thorough scaling up of tailored bridging courses, enhancing the quality of TVET training, and implementing a graduation model from TVET qualifications to higher professional degrees to accommodate the growing number of learners who aspire to advance to the summit of consummate scholarship.

By Nashon Adero
Lecturer and Enactus Faculty Advisor, Department of Mining and Mineral Processing Engineering
Taita Taveta University (TTU), Kenya
[email protected]

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