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Last Updated: Saturday, 14 February, 2004, 01:35 GMT
Novel end-of-school exams
Mike Baker
By Mike Baker
BBC education correspondent, in Moscow

Next week will herald big changes to the examination and university entrance systems in England.

The Russian Federation is embarking on a wholesale reform of its end-of-school exams and university admissions
The Tomlinson review of education for 14 to 19 year olds will recommend an overhaul of GCSEs and A-levels, to be replaced by a new diploma system.

At almost the same time, the task force led by Professor Steven Schwartz will propose new principles for university admissions and will venture into the controversial area of new university entrance tests.

As far as I know, neither Tomlinson nor Schwartz have taken evidence from the Russian education system. But perhaps they should have done.

For the Russian Federation is embarking on a wholesale reform of its end-of-school exams and university admissions. Indeed, it is combining the two into a single Unified State Exam.

It aims to solve many of the very problems that we are trying to tackle in England.

Russian Education Minister Vladimir Filippov
Vladimir Filippov is overhauling the Russian system [Novosti photo]
These include: ensuring breadth in sixth-form exams, testing all students in numeracy and literacy skills and achieving clearer differentiation between those getting top grades.

First, a little background on the Russian system. Last year 1.3 million 17 to 18 year olds graduated from the 11th grade of high school (the equivalent of the second year of sixth form).

In the same year, 1.2 million students entered Russian universities. Some of these were mature entrants, but the impressive fact is that about 80% of high school graduates go to university.

The Russian Education Minister, Vladimir Filippov, would like to reduce this to about 50%, as he wants more young people to go into technical, vocational and on-the-job training.

Incidentally, one factor driving students to university participation is that it provides exemption from military conscription. Who wouldn't rather study than be sent to Chechnya?

According to Mr Filippov, Russia now produces too many graduates.

He said: "It is now more difficult for graduates to find a good job than it is for technicians and workers and, on average, the salaries for workers are higher than for those who graduate from universities."

Russia has two other problems which Mr Filippov is trying to solve with his Unified State Exam.

history lesson
I don't think we need subjects like maths
History student Natalia (right)
First, there is no universal examination for 17 to 18 year olds. As in the USA, students "graduate" from high school on the basis of their record at school. But standards vary from school to school.

The second problem is that universities each have their own entrance examinations (partly because of the unreliability of those high school grades). This makes university admissions something of a lottery.

For example, if you live in Moscow it is easy enough to attend two or three of the city's universities to sit their entrance exams.

But of you live in Siberia, a couple of days' journey away, you probably cannot afford to travel to Moscow to take the exam.

The system is also inequitable because students require private tuition for each separate entrance test. This is beyond the means of poorer students.

Mr Filippov said: "It is not a very good system now. Those who are best prepared tend to be from the rich families, whereas the poor students are not well prepared."

'A matter of time'

So Mr Filippov - who, according to education policy observers, has the close support of President Putin, the driving force behind education reform - is pushing ahead with the new State Unified Exam.

Last year it was taken by about half of all school-leavers. This year the figure will rise to three-quarters.

It has not yet been adopted in Moscow's schools but city administrators accept it is only a matter of time.

So what is the State Unified Exam? Each candidate must take tests in mathematics and Russian Language. They must take at least two other subjects relating to the courses they plan to take at university.

Each test has three parts: a multiple-choice section, short-answer questions covering factual knowledge, and longer essays on more testing questions.

Marks are given out of 100. The highest level is so difficult that only 1 student in 10,000 will achieve the maximum score.

A better system?

Since it is a universal exam, schools will have to prepare students for it. This should reduce the need for private tuition for the current separate university entrance tests.

Head of English, Svetlana Vysotina
It will give students more equal opportunities
Head of English, Svetlana Vysotina [Novosti]
Svetlana Vysotina, head of English at State Secondary School 1253 in Moscow, welcomes it.

"I think it will be a better system," she said. "It will give students more equal opportunities to enter university."

However, not all teachers are so keen, as it means changes to the way they teach. Many universities are also unhappy at what they see as interference with their independence and with their existing subject-specific entrance tests.

Not surprisingly, students are not always keen on taking tests in subjects they are not planning to pursue at university.

At school 1253, 11th grader Natalia Pisarskaya is planning to apply to read history at Moscow State University. She said: "I think it's rather difficult, as I don't think we need subjects like maths if we apply for history."

High grades, low fees

Her classmate Aleksei Pogoniailov, who wants to apply to the University of Oil and Gases, said: "It will be hard for students if they have to remember the subjects that they won't need."

The idea is to relate university fee levels directly to students' exam scores
There is a further twist to the Russian government's proposals. It relates to another hot topic in England: university tuition fees.

At present about 50% of Russian university students pay no fees at all, while the other 50% pay full-cost fees which vary from about 300 to 4,500 a year.

Universities are allocated a fixed number of state-funded student places but can then accept additional fee-paying students.

Under the State Unified Exam, the idea is to relate university fee levels directly to students' scores.

So those who get 70% or above will get free places. The rest will pay fees on a sliding scale. So, for example, those who score 60-70% will pay 10% fees, and those with 50-60% will pay 20%, and so on.

It is an intriguing, meritocratic idea. Perhaps it will appeal to opposition parties in England as they seek an alternative to the government's top-up fees policy?

We welcome your comments at educationnews@bbc.co.uk although we cannot always answer individual e-mails.

Learning review wants fewer tests
13 Feb 04  |  Education
Universities seek 'fairer' admissions
23 Sep 03  |  Education


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