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Grade inflation hits Iraqi high schools

Iraqi high school students tend to get extremely high final grades, which raises questions because of the country's weak educational system and that many families want their children, but sons especially, to become doctors at any price.
An Iraqi professor gives lessons to medical students in the laboratory of the College of Medicine in Kerbala University, 110 km (68 miles) south of Baghdad October 30, 2007.      REUTERS/Mushtaq Muhammad  (IRAQ) - RTR1VHD1

BABIL, Iraq — Around 79,000 Iraqi students are getting ready to start vocational training (two-year programs leading to an associate degree) or university (four-year programs leading to a bachelor's degree), according to the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research announcing the university admissions exam results for the academic year 2013-14. Many students taking their final high school exams received grades ranging from 95 to 100, which could well be the largest group of students in the world attaining such high grades.

This increase in grades, however, hinders many students’ dreams of studying medicine — for which top grades are required to be selected — at a time when Iraqi families are struggling financially to pay for, especially, their son's degree in medicine at any price, even if this requires sending him to study abroad. The number of Iraqi students studying abroad has thus increased and already reached around 14,000 in 2013.

Ahmed al-Bayati’s family allocates around $12,000 a year for the education of their son, who started his first year in college in India in 2013.

Bayati told Al-Monitor, “My son Saad, who got an average of 70 [on the admissions exam] last year, was not admitted to the faculty of medicine [in Iraq] and was forced to study at a university in India. He passed his first year.”

Student Ahmad Majid al-Kallabi, who got an average of 95 on his admissions exam, told Al-Monitor that the reasons behind these high grades are “the easy exams and indulging students during the exams, which explains the unbelievably [high] grades.”

With this average, Kallabi was offered admission to the program of materials science and engineering at the University of Technology in Baghdad. This brought an end to his and his family’s dream of studying medicine or majoring in something related such as pharmaceutical sciences.

Kallabi added, “Medical majors are only available to students who get average grades of 98 or 99, and they are widely spread in various parts of Iraq.”

This reality is confirmed by Nader Abdullah, a professor of engineering at the University of Babylon and in charge of the administrative affairs in the department of engineering. Abdullah told Al-Monitor, “A large number of students received [high] grades and want to study medicine, but the high number of [students with top grades] and the increasing demand of [studying] medicine hinder their goals.”

Abdullah added, "The engineering faculties rank second after the medical faculties in terms of student applications and the admissions rate [to engineering faculties] has increased accordingly.”

However, Director of Educational Inspection and Supervision Salah Hadi told Al-Monitor over the phone, “The increase in the number of students with high grades proves the recovery of the teaching process in Iraq.”

Ahmed al-Ghareeb, a student, told Al-Monitor, “I was forced to major in science at the University of Babylon because my grades did not qualify me to enter the faculty of medicine, but my heart remains there.”

Ghareeb does not blame himself for not getting the required grades to major in medicine, but criticized “the mechanism that allow students to obtain [these] unbelievable results.”

“How do dozens of students get [a score of] 100 despite the weak educational system [in Iraq]? This does not happen in any country in the world. There are students who got [a score of ] 100 in English and I know that they cannot speak that language,” Ghareeb said.

The Iraqi curriculum follows a “classic” approach — questions related to expressions in Arabic and English as well as to history and geography are included in the final exams, which make it difficult to get a high score in these subjects. In this regard, Qasim al-Rubaie, the inspector in the Babylon directorate, told Al-Monitor, “I am suspicious whether these exams reflect the real [educational] level of students.”

“Students learn information by heart without understanding, analyzing or being innovative, which explains why many get a high score on the exams,” he said.

Despite these high grades, the educational level, skills and innovation capacity remain weak among Iraqi students.

This was confirmed by educational researcher Mayson Hassan, who told Al-Monitor, “The students’ grades do not reflect a good educational level because most of the questions in the exams do not focus on creativity but on memorizing information.”

She added, “The high turnout of students in the faculties of medicine is because families take social pride in having their son become a doctor. Moreover, doctors find employment opportunities in both the public and private sectors.”

Hassan said, “When rich families give up on having their sons accepted at a university program in medicine in Iraq, they send them abroad.”

Pharmacist Satar Farhood, owner of the Suhaila pharmacy in Nasr Square in Baghdad, is an example of this. Farhood sent his son to study medicine in India after he got an average of 70 in the Iraqi admissions exam. He told Al-Monitor, “That my son is majoring in pharmaceutical sciences in India will allow him to master the profession that is practiced by both his parents.”

In many cases, the goal of the education in Iraq is to get high grades at any price. After all, the end justifies the means, especially when the purpose strays from understanding and comprehension and focuses on getting a prestigious certificate at the expense of an education.

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