By Myles G. Smith
Inna Valkova is accustomed to the prying government officials and tax inspectors sent to investigate her operations. “Look at my office,” she tells them when they arrive, gesturing to the boxes of instruction sheets and rulebooks stacked around the small room. “Does it look like I am getting rich from this?”
Valkova, the director of the Center for Educational Assessment and Teaching Methods (CEATM), projects poise amid the commotion of a cramped Bishkek apartment, which serves as the headquarters of her non-governmental organization (NGO). Her tiny team is busy preparing to administer another round of Kyrgyzstan’s national university admissions test (known by its Russian acronym, ORT) that weekend.
Since 2002, the ORT, modeled on the American SAT, has assessed students’ ability to study at the university level. Its ability to determine eligibility for merit-based state scholarships, while increasing rural representation in universities, stands out as a success story in the struggle to eliminate corruption and nepotism from post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan’s education system.
State scholarships are a legacy of the Soviet Union, which provided free tuition and a stipend to any student who could pass a university’s entrance exam. From 1992, Kyrgyzstan’s universities began charging tuition, and the state put a cap of 5,000 on the number of scholarships it would award.
During this transition, universities began relying on tuition for revenue and their survival. Scholarships, accordingly, began to be sold to the highest bidder, often for more than their face value: “Wealth and personal connections replaced merit as the essential pre-requisites to enrollment to most universities with state scholarship funding,” the Aga Khan-funded University of Central Asia (UCA) said in a 2010 report.
“We wanted the students to have a chance at higher education regardless of where they came from,” recalls Kamila Sharshekeeva, president of the private University of Management and Design in Bishkek, and a former minister of education and science.
“Parliament would say, ‘give us quotas for our regions, so the scholarship seats would be distributed nationwide.’ Clearly, the deputies themselves would end up distributing the seats,” she explained. As minister, Sharshekeeva eventually partnered with ACCELS, a US-government funded NGO, to introduce the ORT in 2002. By 2006, ACCELS had spun off its testing operation, and Valkova became the director of a now-independent, local institution.
Sharshekeeva stresses that the political will of President Askar Akayev, an academic himself, was critical to ORT’s founding. Still, the idea was contentious, and she was ousted just weeks before the test was unveiled. Most of the succeeding ministers, as well as many rectors and politicians, have tried to abolish the ORT, according to John Clark, a consultant on the project who currently heads the International University of Central Asia in Tokmok. But they have found killing a widely popular and trusted institution surprisingly difficult.
“Every year it’s something new,” laments Valkova. “Last year, it was the price, this year it is the languages. … In the past, the universities themselves were openly opposed to us. It’s good that we finally have a good relationship with the Ministry of Education.”
Earlier this spring, the Kyrgyz Youth Council, an established youth movement, called for eliminating testing in Uzbek, claiming that because the language has no official status in Kyrgyzstan, the test violated the law and the constitution. Nationalist MPs and Kyrgyz-language media outlets pounced on the issue, propagating misinformation about the Uzbek test’s legal basis and history, and demanded the resignation of Education Minister Kanat Sydykov.
“It is ridiculous. Uzbek tests were there from the beginning,” notes Valkova. In a commentary published by KNews.kg, Sharshekeeva, the former minister, identified at least five presidential decrees and Education Ministry regulations providing for tests in Uzbek, which is an official language of instruction for schools in Kyrgyzstan.
Sydykov defended the Uzbek language test, insisting that canceling it would “infringe on the rights of [ethnic] Uzbek citizens,” a brave public position in the current political climate. President Almazbek Atambayev later voiced support through his spokesman.
Observers widely agree that the sudden emergence of the Uzbek-language test controversy was manufactured by political opponents of Sydykov, or by those interested in getting into the testing business.
But such entrepreneurs are likely to end up disappointed. Test takers pay 220 soms ($4.80) for the main test. Political figures have accused CEATM of over-charging students, ignoring of the fact that the rates are agreed on by the government, and that USAID continues to subsidize ORT.
This year, surprising rectors and potentially limiting opportunities to collect bribes, Minister Sydykov announced the test would become a major factor in all admissions to state universities even for non-scholarship students. “Of course, many universities are again upset,” said Duishon Shamatov, author of the 2010 UCA report. “Now, due to ORT scores, [the university rectors] cannot make arbitrary decisions, and thus they feel disempowered.”
Certainly, the ORT faces legitimate questions, analogous to those in the United States, where some worry about rich families’ ability to hire tutors to prepare their children for the SATs, or “teaching to the test” in public schools. But experts in Kyrgyzstan still view the ORT as a step in the right direction.
“To this day, I still have parents who come to me, thanking me for making it possible for their child to study at university without having to sell their property to pay a bribe,” Sharshekeeva noted. “This is something we should really be proud of, but instead, some try to ruin it.”
“We’re just here to give every student a fair chance,” asserts Valkova. “Some people just don’t see how that could be.”
Myles G. Smith is a freelance analyst based in Bishkek.