In what is fast becoming an annual incidence, NECO recently announced that 79 per cent of the students who registered for the council's May/June examinations failed English Language. The news,as usual, was greeted with widespread condemnation of government's dismal interest in the affairs of the schools, and copious reference was made of unmotivated teachers, dilapidated structures, poor infrastructures, pusillanimous parents and nonchalant candidates.

Apart from the above-stated woes befalling our education system, Nigerian schools are also groping with incessant strikes, substandard standards, paucity of funds and funny government policies that make teachers nothing but groundlings. As it is, the only time Nigerian teachers get respect is when they are marking examination scripts. And as it is gradually evolving, they are passing a message across via their red ballpoint pens.

Being familiar with the aforementioned incidences prompted an inquiry into the reasons for the current annual celebration of appreciable failures in Senior Secondary Certificate Examinations in Nigerian schools. The discoveries are as predicted, anticipated and extensively indicated. But in addition, NECO is being accused of releasing fabricated results.

During the pre-millennial years, the West African Examinations Council (WAEC) was the alpha and omega of senior secondary final exams and candidates often trembled at the mere thought of the four-lettered acronym that stood as the only bridge between students and their Ivory Tower dreams.However, in response to the numerous clamors, calls and cries for the establishment of an examination body that is entirely Nigerian, the Federal Government enacted a law that established NECO. The law ultimately broke the autonomy of the sub-regional examination body.

Unlike WAEC, NECO has been a subject of controversy even prior to its establishment when the issues were majorly about its acceptability and credibility outside the shores of Nigeria. The controversies climaxed in the first year of the council's existence when several Nigerian institutions including the University of Ibadan, University of Lagos, and University of Benin refused to consider students with NECO results for admission for reasons associated with the credibility of the results issued by the council.

In year 2000?the year that candidates first sat the NECO May/June examinations in addition to WASSCE, most schools were thrown into celebrations and jubilation when the results were released as almost every student had an avalanche of distinctions even in subjects some of them didn't register for.The assertive notion then was that NECO was trying to "entice" candidates. This was proven to be true,to some extent, when WASSCE results were also released. It's worthy to note that a lot of candidates who passed NECO exams glowingly failed WASSCE woefully. The controversy surrounding NECO exams further deepened during the 2001 examinations.

Maybe as a result of the widespread rejection of its results by some universities, the council became less benevolent and charitable with it's A's, and a lot of candidates failed woefully despite having comparatively average results in WAEC examinations. And like a potent magical spell, all Nigerian universities flung their gates opened to students that are armed with NECO results. With a rich history like this, it's not totally absurd to consider claims of result fabrications.

My interest in the rumor was piqued when I met an English Language teacher who on condition of anonymity, claimed that he returned the scripts with him on Friday and the results were announced on Monday. He asked how possible it is for all the scripts around the country to be collated, verified and analyzed over the weekend in order to release the results on Monday. In response, I suggested the internet as a faster medium of transferring data. To confirm his theory, he introduced me to his colleague who was with some scripts when the results were announced. In unison, the three of us asked ourselves: how did NECO compute results for such candidates?

Despite the numerous simplifications and reorganization of result collations, marking scripts is a multi-faceted time-consuming, capital- and manpower- intensive process that is characterized with several checks and balances to guard against any incidence that could compromise the validity of results released. However, the newly found passion of NECO?which is to release results as soon as possible?is probably causing the body to overlook and underestimate certain vital steps that could undermine the collective efforts of all stakeholders in the nation's education sector.

The time frame that is given to NECO examination markers has been greatly slashed from what it used to be; hence these markers are understandably in a race against time to complete the almost impossible task of marking hundreds of script despite having other teaching, family, religious and business responsibilities to see to and through. Such a system is therefore prone to complications that need to be looked into. Even if NECO does not have an official policy of intentionally failing its candidates,compelling its markers to run like Usain Bolt creates enough avenues to fail students.

During the last marking exercise, I visited a school where markers were carrying out their duties.On closer observation, it seemed like the teachers were just scanning through the bulky answer booklets, instead of reading in-between the lines to extract salient points that the candidates might have embedded in the thick of inked pages. With the speed I saw at the center, it's possible for a marker to mark more than three hundred scripts in an hour! This tradition is a normal feature in higher institutions of learning where a lecturer marks thousands of scripts within a given time frame. However,importing this style into secondary education is bound to promote mass failures with or without NECO's complacency.

NECO's marking verification process is also another issue that is worth discussing. In the instances previously discussed, a vibrant verification could help in ensuring a strict adherence to the marking scheme, and ensure that markers are not marking in annoyance or in desperation. It is sad to know that what NECO has is a collation system that only collect and arrange scripts instead of thorough re-evaluation of how the markers marked.

Despite having being successfully established as an autonomous examination council, NECO is still walking in the shadows of WAEC. Its system is similar, in every ramification except the leadership, to the sub-regional council's. This could be another way that NECO is contributing to the ridiculous results it is publishing annually.

Currently, Nigerian education is unpredictable and there is no reliable calendar that correctly states the beginning and the end of academic sessions. This is further complicated by the incessant strikes in state-owned schools. During the last NECO exams for instance, several Nigerian schools were on strike. How do we expect students to pass in flying colors when it's been a while they last saw the four walls of a classroom? To issue results which are true depiction of the intellectual capacities of its candidates and not of the nation, NECO must consider all the militating factors and come up with a plan that removes interference from every angle.

Despite the fact that there are numerous probable reasons for its candidates' dismal performance in recent years, NECO still has a lot of questions to answer. Like those two teachers and millions of Nigerians are asking, what software is NECO using to generate results for the students whose scripts weren't submitted on time by markers for collation?

Nigerian leaders, education stakeholders and the cognoscenti must take into cognizance the fact that for us to have a true picture of the extent of decadence in our educational institutions, the examination bodies must be allowed to operate freely without any interference that could affect their functions and activities. Also, the examination bodies must not allow pressing national issues to compel them into making decisions that are counterproductive, and that spell doom in future to come. They should do their job, and leave the rest to the candidates.