Re-thinking BECE Grading System, position of WAEC (Part I)

BY: Very Rev. Dr. Sam Nii Nmai Ollennu
The writer
The writer

It is an incontrovertible fact that education is paramount to the attainment of national developmental goals, not excluding training of human resource for the job market.

The vehicle for education is teaching and learning. In these undertakings, educational measurement and evaluation are key tools for identifying shortfalls in students’ performance and providing direction for interventions needed to address the weaknesses, while consolidating the strengths.

In school, learning is mainly measured through conduct of tests, which could be in written, practical, oral, or aural form.

Whichever form it takes, the tests may be formative or summative. A formative test is the type that gauges students’ performance with the intent of bringing to light, weaknesses that need to be addressed.

In that sense, it provides information for the introduction of measures aimed at improving student performance.

This type of examination is also referred to as assessment for learning. Summative tests are assessment of learning and are mainly for determination of achievement for certification.

The same also facilitates selection or enrolment for a higher course or professional career. At any level of education, tests may also be regarded as motivation for learning.

There is no argument about the fact that should tests be absent from the school system, many students may find no motivation to learn. They may even absent themselves from teaching sessions without fear of losing anything.

Data from educational measurement of students’ abilities, provide a basis for categorisation for the purposes of engagement, placement, and advancement.

They also highlight inherent deficiencies in the education system and assist policymakers to design the right interventions to improve teaching and learning experience and human capital development.

For categorisation of test outcomes, there are two types of grading systems that may be employed. These are the criterion-referenced test (CRT) grading system and the norm-referenced test (NRT) grading system.

CRT System

The CRT system is used to measure performance and achievement against a set of goals (the criterion) in the curriculum. On the other hand, NRT grading gives indication of performance within a cohort.

The CRT grades can be compared across years, while the NRT grades can be compared only within a given year, and never across years since it is more of an arrangement of students’ performance in order of merit.

When the Basic Education Certificate Examination (BECE) was first introduced, performance was so poor that if the CRT grading system were to be used, candidates would obtain a chain of Grade Fs and there may not be enough to cross the credit line to fill the vacancies in existing senior high schools (SHS).

To prevent having empty classrooms in SHS at that time, the NRT grading was adopted, and it was purely for the selection of students into SHS and not for certification of achievement.

In that system, it cannot be said that a student passed or failed BECE since entry into SHS depends on the number of available vacancies and the total score under which the education authorities draw the selection line.


In my research paper entitled, “Use of CRT versus NRT at the BECE level”, it came out clearly that while some well-performing candidates were short-changed, some poorly performing students were heavily cushioned when the NRT grading system was used.

Furthermore, since the NRT grades cannot be compared across years, they cannot be used to measure performance over a long period and therefore, offers little information upon which policymakers may dwell in determining interventions needed to improve the education system.

In contrast to this, performance measured by the CRT system is comparable across years and, therefore, gives indication of performance of the education system over a period and this may be instructive for policymakers.

Additionally, the CRT system does not short-change nor cushion any examinee. Therefore, it presents a more realistic determination of attainment of a student against the criteria as set out in the curriculum and offers information for formative purposes to help the student, as well as being summative for categorisation and certification.

Recent developments in the country indicate that the emphasis of junior high schooling (JHS) has shifted from being a mere selection apparatus for SHS, to measurement of achievement to help the teacher/instructor give the student early preparation or coaching for life and entrepreneurship.

As such, the thrust of the JHS education has moved further beyond mere literacy and numeracy, and liberal arts, to acquisition of life skills, soft skills and problem-solving abilities through activity-based learning.

To facilitate a continuation of the process at the SHS, the final JHS test should unearth the skills and competencies acquired by the student, be they soft or otherwise and give early indication of the capabilities and academic orientation of the learner.

This would provide a basis for counselling regarding the field of study or profession that the learner may pursue at the next rang of education.

Unfortunately, the information for such an exercise cannot by any means be generated by the NRT system.

Therefore, I find it heart-warming that in outlining the proposed education reforms, there was an expression of intent to change the current grading system of BECE from NRT to CRT.

Learning materials essential

While endorsing such a reform, it must be stated that should the education authorities fail to provide ample teaching-learning materials and a conducive environment, and also omit to incentivise teachers to improve the general performance of JHS students, the initial fear of not having enough candidates passing the external examination and making the grade for advancement, may materialise.

However, the benefits of migrating the JHS grading system from NRT to CRT outweighs the challenges. At worst, the two systems could be used side-by-side.

In that case, while the NRT system provides for the SHS selection needs, the CRT system will generate information for the formative, summative and policymaking purposes.

To conclude this first part of the write-up, I state with no doubt whatsoever that WAEC has the capability to manage this change and assist in providing the necessary information inputs needed by the Ghana government to fine-tune the education system to yield the desired optimal outputs.

The writer is a Chaplain/Lecturer, Methodist University College Ghana, Accra and former Head of National Office, WAEC