In April and May, when school students were preparing for their tests and exams, rivers of money started flowing into specific bank accounts. The reason? Some financial genius in Dmytro Tabachnyk’s ministry turned such a seemingly innocent and necessary thing as proficiency exams in schools into a profitable business, draining the budgets of Ukrainian families of nearly half a billion Ukrainian hryvnyas.
FRANTIC RUSH FOR NO GOOD REASON
At the end of each academic year, high schools administer final proficiency exams to assess students’ knowledge at intermediary stages. A few years ago when headed by Ivan Vakarchuk, the Ministry of Education and Science introduced these tests in middle schools and adopted multiple-choice tests for several subjects. When Tabachnyk replaced Vakarchuk, one of his first moves was to cancel these tests in the middle school allegedly to relieve students of excessive strain. However, less than a year later he reversed his decision. Why? Is the load on students much smaller now?
“Under the existing system, the Ministry of Education and Science is one of the poorest ministries in terms of the ability to secure funds,” says ex-Education Ministry official Serhiy Pashchynsky. “It has become a tradition that any assessment that requires educational materials to be printed has been exploited by every minister to earn extra money.”
The Ministry of Education’s order to administer exams in the 5th through the 8th grade was signed by Tabachnyk on February 16, 2011. However, real preparations started only after his deputy, Borys Zhebrovsky, issued a letter with instructions on March 4. The tests were scheduled for May 10-20, merely two months away, which means that they were conceived from day one as an emergency undertaking.
“There is nothing strange about it,” says MP Lesia Orobets who heads a Verhovna Rada subcommittee on basic education. “In all spheres where people are cheated out of their money the con artists create a state of emergency. Remember all the times people have been told: There is very little time left. You need to hurry and you need to do everything you can. In other words, they artificially create a buying craze for a certain product for which an apparent lack of supply is an important element of the scheme.”
In our case, this product took the form of handbooks with test questions.
DRIVING UP DEMAND
The recommendations pertaining to the tests in the March 4 letter gave a very loose definition of their form. For example, the Ukrainian language test had to include both multiple-choice questions and an essay.
The other subjects, in addition to Ukrainian, were math, history of Ukraine, a foreign language (English, French and German) and Russian (for classes with Russian as the language of instruction), according to information The Ukrainian Week obtained from the Ministry of Education. The tests were developed by the Institute for Innovative Technology and Content of Education attached to the Ministry and headed by Oleksandr Udod.
“Are you buying a history book for the 5th grade?” a schoolgirl asked me as I looked at a book on the bookstand. “These books are very poor quality; there are lots of mistakes in them. Mama bought one and then our teacher made corrections with a pencil for us.” Her mother nods in agreement: “All parents at the school were told to make sure we bought these books, because otherwise the children would not be able to pass anything. And then there were these corrections. Can you imagine how this looked to the children?”
Quite a few teachers and experts contacted by The Ukrainian Week had an extremely negative opinion of the handbooks in question that were prepared by the Ministry of Education. “The worst are the tests for the 5th grade,” says Orobets. “Out of 38 suggested versions about 15 can be used, because others are, to put it mildly, less than perfect in terms of facts, methodology, consideration of student age differences, lexicon and downright mistakes … This is true of all the handbooks. For three years I was directly involved in making tests for schools, so I know the process from the inside. It takes quite a bit of money and time to write quality tests for any age group of students. What we have here is a hastily made product designed for a quick sale in maximum quantities in conditions of an artificial buying craze.”
The Ukrainian Week asked the Ministry of Education to explain their justification for approving these unfinished educational products for publication. The answer was that they made the choices: “Based on the conclusions of subject scientific and methods commissions in the Scientific and Methods Council for Education Issues.” So the same people, who made the tests, checked their quality.
On March 29, the Ministry sent out a letter entitled “Regarding the inadequate preparations for proficiency tests in the 5th through the 8th grade” to local education officials. In it, the Ministry sounds more like the sales department of a commercial company chastising its regional dealers. In particular, it says: “It appeared that everyone understood everything. However, judging from requests for information (allegedly submitted by parents and teachers. – Author), the information has never reached the schools.”
Then teachers in many schools suddenly found themselves under pressure to force parents in every possible way to buy the handbooks. Teachers put pressure on parents. One efficient way of doing so was to give students homework out of these handbooks and punish them with poor grades if they failed to turn in their work.
This was the case with Herman Matalas, an eighth-grader in Kherson General Education School No. 30. “Since late March we were told that money was being collected to purchase test questions in five subjects,” Herman's father Andriy Matalas said. “In response to my inquiry the city education directorate clearly said that there was a need to buy the handbooks, because it was up to the school administration to take care of the preparations. However, since April 11 students began to be evaluated using questions from these handbooks. Herman began to receive homework assignments from them, and the books themselves were not freely available in the school. Since he did not have them, our son began to bring home the low grades.”
The parents complained to the Verkhovna Rada. MP Orobets involved the Kherson Prosecutor’s Office and the local education directorate. But the story continued. “After we refused to buy these handbooks, the school’s principal, Oksana Barnash, told my son to come to her office.” says Andiy. “He was there for 45 minutes. Her main message was this: you and your parents are wrong; stay away from this thing. Herman asked: Why do I have to buy handbooks if they are published online at the Ministry’s site? Her reply was: Are you the smartest one around here? My son received 6 or 7 in all subjects, even though he had good grades prior to that.” Andriy doubts his son will remain in this school for the next year.
Andriy S., a fifth-grader in Drohobych, has a similar story to tell. The only difference is that his parents did not openly confront the administration, fearing for their son’s future. Finally, he simply made photocopies of the tests from the books his classmates had. The same problem faced Andriy M. who goes to a Kyiv school with an emphasis on English. The Ukrainian Week has collected about a dozen such stories after making phone calls to acquaintances that have school-age children.
THE PRICE OF THE ISSUE
According to its own instructions, the Ministry of Education and Science was supposed to provide each school with copies of the handbooks by May 1, 2011. “The Ministry had to provide them to at least half the students in each class under current laws,” says lawyer Viacheslav Honcharov.
“There is not a red cent in the budget for these final tests, not to mention publishing the handbooks with test questions for the 5th through the 8th grade,” said a Ministry of Education functionary, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “When they drew up the budget in December, there was no question of these tests whatsoever. The brilliant idea to administer them dawned on Tabachnyk in early February.”
The right to publish the handbooks was granted to commercial companies, even though the government has enough printing capacity of its own. Why? The Ministry’s reply to The Ukrainian Week boiled down to the statement that based on expert evaluation; it approved the handbooks submitted by the publishing houses Ranok, Osnova and Litera Ltd. Period. No further explanation was given. No information about why precisely these publishers were selected, whether a tender was held or how much they cost. Tabachnyk’s subordinates also failed to explain why the materials approved by the Ministry were distributed by the commercial departments of private companies. Curiously, all copies of the handbooks that The Ukrainian Week has purchased in book retail networks contain no indication of the overall print run.
“These printing shops may be specifically geared toward schemes involving educational materials,” said the CEO of a large printing enterprise who preferred to speak on condition of anonymity. “Sixty percent of the sales goes to the respective Ministry of Education officials in cash under the counter.”
The publishers who brought out the handbooks are an elusive bunch. Private entrepreneur I.Stetsenko (Kharkiv) who published most of the handbooks failed to include an imprint in half of them. His office and that of the Center for Education and Methods Literature did not answer our phone calls. Employees at Ultra Druk picked up the telephone only to slam it right back down. The Ukrainian Week decided to turn to the Institute for Innovative Technology and Content of Education to learn how the information included in the handbooks was transferred and who obtained it. When the test questions appeared on the market, handbooks with answer keys appeared at the same time. Our attempts to reach the business ended with a secretary’s promise to convey our request for comments to the administration.
Another nuance is prices. The publishers used offset printing on cheap newsprint for the handbooks. “If you print at least 100,000 copies, the production cost is UAH 3 per item at the most,” says Serhiy Oleksiyenko, manager of a publishing company. “Even considering the 25-30% final markup, the retail price is at least 10 times the production cost. A businessman can only dream of such a profit margin.”
Even now with the tests in the past and students already graded, the handbooks are priced from UAH 20-30 and the answer keys UAH 10-25 in retail shops. Salespeople say that shortly before and during the tests the buying craze drove the price to UAH 70.
Companies operating on the Kyiv printing market said they were prepared to print this kind of book in runs of 100,000 copies at UAH 2 apiece. The highest price (UAH 2.25) was quoted by Presa Ukrainy, which should have received this job from the Ministry of Education because it is a government-owned enterprise. Some privately-owned companies would even charge as little as UAH 1.5. Moreover, the bigger the print run, the lower the per-item cost. If more than 100,000 copies had to be printed, the price could have been pushed down another 25-30%.
According to sources contacted by The Ukrainian Week, the print run of each of the published handbooks is at least 400,000 copies, which is roughly the number of students in Ukraine in each of the grades in question. All four groups took at least four tests. The average retail price was about UAH 50 for a handbook and UAH 25 for a book with answer keys. So any family that had a child in one of these grades (5th through 8th) would have to shell out up to UAH 300. The figure nationwide could have been as much as UAH 480 million.