“The state exam was invented to enable a boy from the town of N to enter a university in the capital”

Natalya Borisenko on the illiteracy of students who score the highest mark in the Russian language exam, deficiencies of the five-point grading system and a race for good performance at schools

“Many university teachers working with freshmen complain that children even with high marks in the Russian language unified state exam are simply illiterate and can’t just express their thoughts. They have to be retaught how to speak a human language again during the first two years,” teacher and psychologist, one of the authors of Russian language books Natalya Borisenko noted. In an op-ed column written for Realnoe Vremya, the expert raises problems of preparation and certification of high school graduates.

USE: the result for the whole country in general is sad

I wouldn’t evaluate the USE either only negatively or only positively. It is an ambiguous phenomenon. But my evaluation is rather negative. We should recognise that the USE has fed me for many years when I, as well as many teachers, worked as a tutor. It is still unclear whose contribution to the graduates’ great successes in the USE is bigger, that of the school or tutors. I am inclined to the second answer. Tutors’ merit in pupils’ successful USE exam is very big. This is why when we, teachers and tutors (the same person at times) criticise the USE, we bite the hand that feeds us.

This exam does check something, but it doesn’t other things. For instance, one should know a lot of spelling and punctuation rules to do a dozen of tasks aimed to check spelling and punctuation. If your literacy is “on the edge of the feather” (an expression from our books), these tasks aren’t difficult at all. When basic literacy is automatic, it isn’t a problem. You spend a minute to do a task and earn a point. Sadly, half books of pupils in the 10-11th grades start to repeat and learn the rules they had to have learnt in the fifth grade.

What the USE can be thanked for is to the task (once it was the number one task) checking word stress. To get one paltry point, one has to learn a list of several hundreds of words that can be easily confounded and have difficulties in stressing a word. And any person who prepares for the USE must know them. This is why it seems to me that children became more trained when comes to spelling. The same happens to paronyms — one has to learn dozens of paronyms. The benefit for the culture of speech is huge, though we could do without a number of very tough paronyms.

The biggest disadvantage of the USE is a composition on the text a student reads, the last task. It is unclear why it is called composition in general. Let’s say it is a task based on the text one reads. The advantage is that it checks the understanding of a text. A graduate, first of all, must know how to understand the text and express his understanding. However, its awful unification is the main problem of this task. This task has a format, criteria. The so-called composition can’t be written freely as we did many decades ago when we wrote compositions about anything we wanted. There are standard criteria, and every pupil who is preparing for the USE must go by these criteria and write a composition according to them. The goal is good because our situation in the understanding of the text is very bad. If you write 2-3 such compositions, it doesn’t seem to be a problem. But one has to write 20-30 during the year. And A students have to write even more. I’ve read a comment of an A student, she wrote a composition per week, sometimes more. 30, 40, 50 compositions according to the same plan with the same cliché is incredible unification. What is the result? A simplified, clichéd speech. Few children manage to resist such pressure and save a free, natural speech. The USE grinds you.

Many university teachers working with freshmen complain that children even with high marks in the Russian language unified state exam are simply illiterate and can’t just express their thoughts. They have to be retaught how to speak a human language again during the first two years. Human language is a favourite adage in our community. “One should use a human language in writing”, Rita Granik constantly repeated. I dream about somebody correlating natural writing, USE points, the points obtained for composition in December with freshmen’s creative works.

The USE was invented for one purpose: to enable a girl or a boy from the town of N to enter a university in the capital. The USE did open the road for somebody, but the result for the country in general is said. And too expensive.

Evaluation criteria of works in our schools haven’t been reviewed for 40 years

Of course, I am not saying that everything is bad now, while it used to be good. Yes, the Soviet era gave us excellent different methods of Russian language teaching. I grew up with books by Taisa Ladyzhenskaya and other authors of this classic and once the only line. There were methods in speech development by Valentina Kapinos, there was an amazing method to teach spelling by Margarita Razumovskaya. It is our classics.

But today, undoubtedly, it is necessary to review many methods because we deal with other children who live in other social and historical conditions. At least there is one problem to revise. It is a system evaluating pupils’ knowledge, skills and competencies. Our schools still have a five-point grading system, which actually has three points (three, four, five), we try to find some flexibility giving pluses and minuses (“Do you want 3+ or 4-?”). But this traditional system blatantly contradicts the way the Basic State Exam and the Unified State Exam evaluate a pupil. They are usually evaluated by criteria, not five points (though everything is converted into it) but a certain number of points is given. As it is known, the USE has a 100-point system, and there is a fight for every point. But usual works, writing and speech, are evaluated by criteria created as early as the 70s. They haven’t been reviewed for 40-50 years. And no matter how much we are asked if there is progress in this respect, it hasn’t been possible to get an answer yet.

All former USSR republics refused the five-point grading system a long time ago. Belarus has a 10-point system, Ukraine does a 12-point system. I’ve studied their evaluation rules, they are much more flexible. One thing is when you do a dictation for five points and receive the five points. But it is a reproductive activity, when doing a dictation you don’t make up anything, you aren’t creative. Another thing is composition, and in these countries you are given two points more because this work is more complicated and creative. And we have five points in both cases. And it is only one example when the Soviet rules don’t work.

Teachers check tests all the time, his pupils are evaluated all the time

The problem is deeper in fact. It is not only in the evaluation system — it is the situation the teacher is in today. Many years ago, in 1976, I was astonished by an article in the magazine Knowledge Is Power. Stella Bondarenko, the author of famous verses about the particle “no”, co-author of our books, wrote the article. The article began with a provocative part “Teacher Must-Do List”. It was enumerated:

  • teacher must know his subject, be aware of the latest achievements in science, know every topic more than it is written in the book;
  • teacher must be a good speaker, a skilful storyteller and even an actor;
  • teacher must know pitfalls of every topic that’s considered;
  • teacher must know how to apply theoretical knowledge in practice, check children’s knowledge on time;
  • teacher must understand how children's memory, attention, imagination works, how to develop them, how to develop children’s speech, arouse and maintain their interest in the subject and, finally, introduce to a rich spiritual culture of humankind.

It is only half of the list, and the “must-do” list hasn’t reduced but increased over the decades. And the big problem is how the teacher “must” cope with them.

Because the Soviet school didn’t have such tests as now. There was a distribution: a test per term, annual tests. Now the number of tests has increased. Teachers check them all the time, his children are evaluated all the time. When should they do their primary duties? When should they do what they should really do? How not substitute their work with semblance? Teachers take a photo of every event, so-called photo opportunities: «We had an interesting talk in class, so now everybody lines up, we will take a photo together because I need to attach the photo to my portfolio and post it on the school’s website, it is the administration’s requirement». I have a lot of friends who work at school. Moreover, these schools are very different — both top-ranking and usual schools. And they all have hard times. It hasn’t become a bit easier. Free the teacher from endless unnecessary “must-do” things, and both the teacher and school will get refreshing oxygen.

By Natalya Borisenko