By NBF News

THE disgusting annual mass failure recorded by candidates that sit for the Senior School Certificate Examinations (SSCE) conducted by the National Examinations Council (NECO), in particular, should be a source of serious concern to the Federal Government and all progressive minded citizens of this country. NECO's failure to improve on its performance has become an annual ritual. Something should be done to correct the anomaly. Or, in the alternative, the mandate of NECO should be limited to the conduct of the National Common Entrance examination, if that is enough to justify its continued existence.

For, as it is, if the nation should depend on NECO to achieve her education dream, then the country would return to the Stone Age, as a negligible number of candidates would qualify for admission into the universities through the NECO route. NECO has continuously failed to live up to expectation. The saving grace is that we have the West African Examination Council (WAEC), which is our traditional platform.

Otherwise, the efforts and resources being expended by government and thousands of candidates and their parents and guardians on NECO every year have proved to be a waste. And there seems to be no sign of improvement. NECO has hardly at a time justified its existence judging from the huge investment on it by government. The only good job the body is currently doing is the conduct of the National Common Entrance Examination into the Junior Secondary School of the 102 Unity Colleges. But is that enough responsibility for the organisation? All that the country has been getting ever since NECO came into existence is mass failure.

Is there any one out there who would continue to invest in a business without reaping profit year in year out and still continues in that business? That is the hallmark of NECO. For NECO, it is mass failure, and mass failure and mass failure every year! What sort of examination body is that that thrives on failure? Of what use is NECO in the educational development of the country? I think something is fundamentally wrong with NECO that records mass failure on annual basis.

While I appreciate that poor performance by candidates appears to be a common phenomenon in today's Nigeria, a situation where NECO's record is outstandingly poor smacks of inherent problem with the examination body. NECO's irony is made manifest because WAEC is there and also examining the same candidates with NECO. The question is why do many candidates pass the WAEC examination with good grades while the same set of candidates fail NECO woefully annually? The two examinations are taken at the same period in May/June/July every year. The WAEC examination even comes first and thereafter is NECO.

But records show that while a good number of the candidates pass WAEC, which they take as first attempt, the same candidates flop in NECO, even with the experience gained in the WAEC examination. Candidates are more confident and might have conquered stage fright before sitting for NECO. Moreover, it's the same teachers, invigilators and examiners that supervise WAEC that also handle NECO. Despite all the common grounds in the two examinations, WAEC comes out better and more credible than NECO. Why is it so? I think that NECO's methodology is faulty and needs to be redressed.

For example, out of the 1,184,907 candidates who wrote the NECO exam in May/June 2009, only a negligible 126,500 or about 10.53 percent scored five credits or more with English and Mathematics. In Nigeria, English and Mathematics are compulsory subjects for admission into any tertiary institution. In the same exam, another 289,966 or about 24.15 percent obtained five credits or more without English and Mathematics, which is equivalent to failure because the candidates would have to re-sit the examination. Many may never have the opportunity to re-take the exam.

On the other hand, in the case of WAEC, out of 1,373,009 candidates (the same that sat for NECO), some 356,981 candidates representing 25.99 per cent passed five subjects or more with English and Mathematics.

The NECO GCE exam of 2009 was even worse. Out of the 234,683 candidates who sat for the exam, only 4,223 had at least five credits with English and Mathematics, representing just 1.8 %! In the same exam, 12,196 candidates passed at least five credits without English and Mathematics, giving a 98.2 per cent failure! What a tragedy?

The result is the same for the 2010 Nov/Dec examinations conducted by NECO. According to Professor Promise Okpala, NECO Registrar, who announced the latest result in Mina on March 30, 2011, out of the 256,827 candidates who sat for the examination only 51,781 passed making only 20 per cent. It's remarkable that while the other examination bodies such as WAEC and JAMB are devising strategies to curb exam malpractice, NECO appears to be sitting on the fence.

Consequently, its examination appears to record the highest number of cases of exam malpractice, when in absolute terms, it handles lesser number of candidates. This is not in the interest of the examination.

I had tried to exonerate both WAEC and NECO's poor performance on the ground of systemic failure when last year the Minister of Education, Professor Ruqayyatu Rufa'i ordered the examination bodies to sit up for better and acceptable performance in their examinations. But my grouse with NECO, in particular, is why should the same candidates who sat and passed WAEC fail woefully in NECO exams every year?

For instance, I know many candidates who passed WAEC with impressive results but failed woefully in NECO. How do you explain that? If those candidates had banked on NECO alone, many of them would have had their educational dreams dashed. Many of those candidates have graduated from the universities while others are still studying. I don't know of any student who gained admission into any higher institution with NECO results. If that is the case, why are we wasting our precious time and resources on an examination body that doesn't seem to add value to the country's educational objectives?

When a decree was promulgated in April 1999 to establish the National Examinations Council (NECO) to complement WAEC, there was controversy and doubt on the capacity of the new examination body 'to conduct reliable examinations that could command widespread national and international respect and acceptability'.

While some saw NECO as an opportunity for candidates to have choice of examination, the overriding fear was whether NECO, as a Nigerian institution, would be able to conduct an examination that is recognised nationally and internationally. WAEC, we all know, is a sub-regional examination body owned by the Anglophone West African countries. It has been there since 1952 and has earned global reputation as a foremost examination body. There is no country in the world where WAEC result is not recognised.

But can the same be said of NECO? As a Nigerian institution, it is prone to the malaises that afflict all public institutions in the country, of which under funding is one. Some people welcomed NECO on the ground that as a Federal Government parastatal, it has the potential to offer subsidised registration to candidates; but this hasn't materialised. Instead, there are indications that NECO is planning to hike its registration fees.

Whereas, NECO was originally established to take over the responsibilities of the National Board for Educational Management (NBEM), the widening of its mandate to include conduct of secondary school certificate examination seems misplaced. Many thought that its coming on board would reduce the pressure on WAEC but the truth is that nothing has changed. Thousands of candidates regrettably ignore NECO and concentrate only on WAEC.

The initial refusal by some tertiary institutions to accept NECO result as credible Ordinary Level certificate eroded its acceptability. It was by executive order that universities were compelled to accept NECO result for admission purposes. Still, up till now, universities and other tertiary institutions have refused to combine WAEC and NECO to satisfy a candidate's admission requirement, even when both were supposed to be Ordinary Level exams. If the two are of equal strength, why are they not being combined for admission? I don't know how NECO results are faring in the labour market. I hope that employers of labour are not rejecting it as well. Otherwise, the Federal Government should reconsider what role NECO should play in the country's educational system.