Belarus boots out the orals

August 8, 1997

A revolution in the transition between school and university is underway in Belarus, where a British-backed experiment to introduce formal written exams in place of traditional oral testing is taking shape.

The Belarus Testing Initiative, devised by the British Council in Minsk with the backing of the republic's education ministry, is piloting written, three-hour English-as-a-foreign-language exams among final-year students in eight provincial schools.

Project organisers hope the exams will gain acceptance as joint school-leaving/university entrance exams and spread to other subjects in the curriculum.

Belarus, like Russia and some other Eastern European countries, operates a dual, oral examination system, with 17-year-old university entrants forced to take school leaving exams in May followed by university entrance tests a month or two later.

The Belarusian written papers, developed with the help of a Thames Valley University consultant, could pave the way for closer integration with the Western European higher education system.

That possibility does not contradict the republic's drive for reunification with Russia, where university entrance exams and five-year diplomas remain sacrosanct, says Vasily Strazhev, the Belarusian education minister.

"For Belarus these written papers are quite a significant step in a new direction, because it runs counter to all our traditions. Sometimes knowledge among our students is much higher than they demonstrate in oral exams," he said.

Tatiana Karaicheva, head of English in the international relations school of Belarus State University and responsible for the one oral part of the exam, said the impetus for the project had emerged from the economic collapse of Belarus since the demise of the Soviet Union.

Secondary-school pupil Stas Keruitski, who is hoping to study theology at the European Humanities University in Minsk, said: "The exam is good training and the dual approach of testing written and spoken comprehension should be adopted by universities as well."

Belarus is really part of Europe and that is why we are starting to experiment with different systems of European education who is hoping to study theology at the European Humanities University in Minsk, His friend Sasha Vinogradov, also approved of the exam's discipline, but thought that the current system of university entrance exams gave greater flexibility, allowing students who fail their leaving exam to cram for college entrance tests.

Higher education institutions are also split: many polytechnics and local colleges would welcome the lifting of the burden of setting entrance exams, which students in Belarus sit without charge, whereas the more traditional classical universities tend to regard their entrance exams as essential quality control devices.

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