Thursday 8 May 2008

Nigeria: WAEC Exam leaks are unacceptable

World-class incompetence

The West African Examinations Council (WAEC) according to its website has the vision of being a world-class examining body, adding value to the educational goals of its numerous stakeholders.

One cannot begrudge them that goal because it forms the basis on which careers of teenagers in the four old British colonies of Nigeria, Ghana (Gold Coast), Sierra-Leone and The Gambia is built.

This organisation was established in 1952 but it appears to have been left behind in the times and is becoming derelict in the purpose for which it was created.

One reads in the news that for a second time, examination questions have been leaked in a week, first for the English Language paper and now for Physics 1.

The seriousness is understated

I worry that the gravity and impact of this serious security and logistics breach has not been taken on board by the appropriate authorities.

Given that only a week ago, I wrote about the requirement for a PhD holder to submit all his certificates for vetting including that for his WAEC results, the question then becomes how much trust and confidence can be had in results that could have been tainted real or assumed leaks of questions just before the examinations.

Indeed, the education system tough, at least I know that many teachers preferred their students to regurgitate lesson notes rather than have comprehension of the subject matter such that they can tackle whatever questions are presented to them on those subjects.

Teach the syllabus for success

There is however a general syllabus that can be covered in such a way as to prepare students for these national examinations and in that way one should be able to expect them to pass and excel.

If corners have been cut in delivering the syllabus or teachers and educational organisations have not applied themselves to this service of properly educating their wards, the tendency would be to short-circuit the system and attempt to acquire and answer the questions for the examination before the examination itself.

That way, the students can excel at what they have been schooled to do throughout their secondary school life – regurgitate and pass.

Good and bad

Much as I am impressed with the internet-based developments (WAEC Direct) of being able to check results online from the year 1991 with a scratch card authentication system, less attention seems to have been paid to securing the examination questions and its transportation to examination venues.

This undermines everything else, because if the examination questions are not presented as fresh at the point of sitting for the examination, the credibility of the whole system and organisation is questionable and the consequences would be grave for all prospective entrants to tertiary institutions.

Locking vaults with strings

I cannot believe that the examination questions are just protected with a PIN, it is like protecting a bank vault with a standard issue padlock. The value of examination questions maintaining the integrity of the purpose of ascertaining the knowledge of students for onward career development is almost unquantifiable.

It is the bedrock of any nation’s future and it must be guarded with the best security tools that can be acquired from the market.

Do security planning first

It means memory-based authentication is out and secure session-based authentication with at least a two-factor authentication system is the minimum requirement. Along with this, there should be full real-time auditing for logons and any kind of access performed on all the objects contained in the examination questions repository.

Beyond this, there should be time-restricted access to the data; examination questions must never accessed before a particular date and time, the marking schemes must never be accessed before the examination is completed and any abuse of the system must exact punitive sanctions with criminal indictment.

There should be multiple question sets so that if one set of questions is compromised, the new set is triggered automatically and delivered to the responsible authorities to disseminate.

In fact, most of the issue of security, confidentiality, authentication and non-disclosure should be properly addressed in the planning stage of attempting to put any information online before any technology is deployed.

Use the old if you don’t understand the new

I am saddened that these events do not help create any confidence in the examination system and it ought not to be so.

If WAEC is not entirely ready to use the Internet responsibly in protecting its reputational brand and purpose, it should revert to the traditional system of using the armoured security vehicles to move the questions to locations and the use of bank vaults to keep the questions until when needed.

To have the lives of struggling and stressed out students mortgaged to incompetence that helps corrupt the system and compromises the foundation of their careers is unacceptable – this should be a national emergency if it is not already a national disgrace.

Anywhere else, the scalp of the organisation chief, in this case, the Head of National Office, Nigeria in the person of Dr. Iyi Uwadiae would have been taken, probably, it is time to have someone in there who really recognises the issue at hand.

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