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Unified State Exam: New Russian Educational Policy Case Study

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Updated: Jun 16th, 2020


This paper discusses the qualitative aspects of the new educational policy in Russia that requires high school seniors to undergo the Unified State Exam (USE). The paper also expounds on what can be considered the USE’s strengths and weaknesses. The 500-word summary of the paper’s main argumentative claims is attached.

Brief description

One of the main aspects of the process of the education system in Russia is currently reformed was the introduction of the so-called Unified State Exam (USE) in 2001. The USE is best defined as the set of exams that Russian high school students are supposed to pass (with the varying degree of successfulness), in order to be able to obtain their graduation diplomas. Simultaneously, the USE is being used as an alternative to the university-entrance examinations – based upon what happened to be a particular student’s USE-score, universities and colleges are able to qualify him/her for enrollment automatically.

Structurally speaking, the USE consists of three ‘blocks’. Block A – contains questions with four or five possible answers to them (out of which, one is correct). Students are expected to pick the right answer. Block B – contains questions that need to be answered, as briefly as possible (usually, with the mean of using a few words/digits). Block C – contains assignments for the evaluation of students’ ability to come up with the expanded elaborations on whatever happened to be the subject matter in question, such as asking the concerned would-be graduates to write an essay on the topic provided.

Within the USE, each of the given answers/completed assignments is evaluated on a 1 to 100 point scale. There are also ‘maximum’ and ‘minimum’ of points that students may score while addressing questions/assignments, related to each of the studied disciplines.

The actual process of calculating what happened to be a particular student’s ‘final score’ is thoroughly computerized, which in turn is supposed to ensure the process’s fairness. The regional specifics of where in Russia the USE takes place have only a minor effect on the actual content of the contained questions/assignments, as it is solely the country’s Ministry of Education, which remains in control of how the USE is being designed. Nevertheless, it now became a commonplace practice for the exam’s history-related questions to be ‘locally reflective’ to an extent. The outcomes of the USE can be disputed, within a matter of 2 days, after their public announcement takes place.

Ever since 2009, Russian students have been required to pass two primary exams, in order to be able to obtain their high school diplomas – in Russian language/literature and Mathematics (Zamyatin, 2012, p. 38). In case when a student fails at passing these two particular exams, he or she will be able to try the next year again. Since the year 2013, it also became possible for high school seniors to use their USE-certificates as ‘tickets’ to entering the university/college of their choice.

Nevertheless, these colleges and universities require applicants to undergo the additional set of tests (usually four), in order to determine the degree of each individual candidate’s eligibility with what happened to be the chosen major in question.

As of today, the public reaction to the USE continues to remain largely positive. It is usually praised for having brought much order into what used to be the essentially chaotic educational realities of Russia, through the years 1991-2001. For example, the USE effectively delegitimized the continual existence of many of the privately-owned high schools, which used to proliferate in Russia throughout the mentioned period – without having been licensed by the Ministry of Education.

Nevertheless, as time goes on, more and more Russians begin to express their discontent with the USE. As will be shown later, the state-exam in question is usually criticized on account of having fallen short of people’s expectations of its would-be effectiveness. What also seems to be adding a momentum to this process, is that the USE is being often regarded, as such that has been ‘enforced’ upon Russia by the so-called Bologna Declaration of 1999, which some of the Ministry’s officials perceive as the indication of the semi-colonial status of Russia (Anistratenko, 2005).

Given the fact that, ever since February of 2014, Russia exists in the state of the new ‘Cold War’ with the West, this situation indeed appears rather explainable.


Initially, the introduction of the USE was meant to increase the efficiency of how the country’s education system functions. As Luk’yanova (2012) pointed out: “The USE was not simply a merger of high school graduation and university entrance examinations; its introduction was intended to provide a standardized, more objective and fairer system of assessment” (p. 1894). The reason for this is that the USE is expected to result in:

  1. Eliminating/reducing the possibility for corruption, within the context of how students remain on the path of attaining a social prominence through education. The reason for this is that, as it was mentioned earlier, the actual process of assessing students’ responses to the USE questions/assignments is fully computerized. What it means is that the possibility for a third party to be able to meddle with this process is effectively reduced to an all-time minimum. Moreover, the USE is also aimed at reducing the number of bureaucrats, within the context of how the country’s education system operates. Given the fact that the problem of over-bureaucratization has been traditionally considered one of the main obstacles on the way of ensuring this system’s efficiency, there is indeed a good reason to think that the introduction of the USE will come in particularly handy, in this respect.
  2. Making it easier for high school graduates from the remote/rural regions of Russia to be able to enter into the country’s most prestigious colleges and universities. According to Gounko and Smale (2007), “The exam (USE), which is often compared to the US SAT, was designed to replace the ‘wastefulness’ of university admission exams and to provide equal access to higher education” (p. 541). The reason for this is quite apparent – the sheer applicational universality of the USE creates the situation when, contrary to what it used to be the case in the past, the social disadvantage of many of talented students will no longer be impeding their chances to pursue the professional career of their choice.
  3. Enabling high school graduates to submit their entry-applications to multiple colleges and universities, while the period for reviewing these applications lasts (from June to August). This, of course, empowers graduates rather substantially, in the sense of increasing their enrollment-chance. Because of the country’s geographic vastness, this particular feature of the USE is considered utterly beneficial.
  4. Contributing to the efficiency of how educational policies are being designed in Russia. The proponents of this idea point out to the fact that, due to the USE, it now became much easier for the Ministry’s officials to assess what happened to be the measure of students’ educational attainment in every region of Russia. Moreover, the USE also enables these officials to speedily identify the qualitative nature of the educational situation in just about every part of the country, without having to leave their offices.
  5. Creating the objective preconditions for the educational certificates/diplomas from Russia to be recognized thoroughly legitimate in the West. The reason for this that the USE’s very methodological approach to assessing the level of academic adequacy, on the part of high school students/university applicants, is thoroughly consistent with Western educational standards.
  6. Stimulating the sense of self-discipline in students. While knowing that whatever the score they acquire (while USE-tested) will be thoroughly objective, students would be more likely to apply an additional effort into taking care of their academic assignments. In its turn, this is supposed to increase their overall level of academic adequacy, on their part.


Nevertheless, ever since the USE’s introduction, it started to become increasingly criticized for what its opponents consider the policy’s methodological and procedural drawbacks. The most apparent of these drawbacks can be listed as follows:

  1. The USE discourages analytical-mindedness in students. As it was implied earlier, the exam is largely concerned with requiring students to choose in favour of the right answer out of the provided ones. This, of course, cannot result in anything else but in prompting students to prioritize memorization, as the learning process’s most important part. However, there can be no guarantee that after having memorized enough of the academically relevant data (in order to be able to score highly during the USE); a particular student would be able to understand this data’s discursive implications. What it means is that the USE favours specifically those students, who are predisposed towards prioritizing their ego-driven commitment towards attaining a social prominence at any cost. Unfortunately, it simultaneously prevents these students from being able to work on expanding their overall intellectual horizons. In its turn, this has a negative effect on the concerned students’ ability to indulge in logical reasoning.
  2. The USE is not quite consistent with the workings of Russian mentality. Unlike what it happened to be the case with the majority of Westerners, many Russians tend to think ‘holistically’. That is, they make practical use of the categories of formal logic only when it is being called for by the pressing circumstances while preferring to reflect upon the surrounding reality’s contextual aspects for the rest of time. This, of course, makes the USE tests ill-adjusted with the fact that Russians (by virtue of who they are) tend to provide extended answers to the questions asked, and not the simplified ‘yes’ or ‘no’ ones.
  3. The USE contains questions that have been incorrectly formulated, as well as the answers the validity of which can be disputed. As a result, there have been many instances of the USE-tested students having submitted complains, on account of some of the exam-questions being discursively misleading. Consequently, this causes the USE to continue being deemed quite illegitimate by its critics.
  4. The USE does not take into account what are the specifics of the educational process in the so-called ‘specialized schools’ (where the emphasis is placed on preparing students for a particular professional career). After all, it would indeed make a logical sense to design a specific set of examinations for this type of high school students. The introduction of the USE, however, is by its very virtue inconsistent with the above-mentioned suggestion.
  5. The USE does not provide a 100 % guarantee that the answers to the questions, contained in the exam’s blocks A and B, will not be properly recognized by the specially designed computer software. In case of a mistake, students would be at risk to have their correct answers being marked as ‘wrong’. It is understood, of course, that this undermines even further the extent of the exam’s credibility.
  6. The USE prevents those students, who represent the country’s ethnocultural minorities, from being able to undergo the required tests in their own language. Even though, during the course of the last few years, the examination-undergoing minority students were able to answer the USE’s liberal-science questions in whatever happened to be their native language (provided that it has the status of the ‘minority language of the Russian Federation’), the language of the A block continues to remain strictly Russian. This partially justifies the claims that the USE, in fact, radiates the spirit of Russian chauvinism, which can be hardly considered appropriate.


The provided earlier outline of the USE’s actual mechanics and also the discussion of what are being commonly deemed the policy’s advantages and disadvantages, allows us to conclude this paper by suggesting that it is much too early to come up with the definitive answer, as to whether it will come as an asset to the country’s education system. On the one hand, the USE is far from being considered the thoroughly effective instrument of ensuring the quality of education in Russia.

On the other, however, there is very little rationale in believing that this will continue to be the case in the future. The reason for this is that, due to being technology-friendly, the USE does not seem to face the danger of becoming functionally inflexible. In its turn, this implies that, contrary to what the policy’s critics believe, its earlier mentioned drawbacks can be successfully eliminated.


In the sub-chapter I (Brief description) of this paper, I define the USE, which is being commonly referred to as such just represents the cornerstone of the new education policy in Russia. I also describe the USE’s technical subtleties: the questions/assignments, provided by the USE, are divided into three blocks, in accordance with what happened to be their qualitative essence.

The assessment-methodology is concerned with the exam’s 1 to 100 point score-scale. Closer to the sub-chapters end, I provide readers with the historical introspective of what accounted for the policy’s developmental phases, ever since the time of its introduction, while pointing out that, even though the USE remained enacted for the duration of 13 years, it nevertheless continues to be considered rather controversial.

In the sub-chapter II (Advantages), I outline the set of advantages, which the USE supposedly provides to the functioning of the education system in Russia. Among them, I mention the fact that it reduces the likelihood for the graduation-examinations, held in high schools, to be affected by corruption, on the part of those in charge of the process.

I also bring it to readers’ attention that the USE does create a number of the objective prerequisites for the talented but socially underprivileged students to be able to proceed with studying in Russia’s colleges and universities. Finally, among the policy’s advantages, I mention the USE’s ability to encourage students to remain thoroughly committed to studying, as the main precondition that they would be able to pass the exam.

In the sub-chapter III (Drawbacks), I mention what is being considered the main drawbacks of the USE. The foremost of them appears to be the fact that the exam encourages students to memorize ‘bare facts’, as the mean of ensuring that it would be successfully passed.

This, however, has a counterproductive influence on the students’ ability to understand what accounts for the dialectical relationship between causes and effects. I also point out to the USE’s other commonly overlooked deficiencies, such as the fact that it is far from being deemed technologically perfected and the fact that it is language-chauvinistic to an extent. The USE’s less than admirable tendency to require students to provide definitive answers to the discursively controversial questions is being mentioned, as well.

In the paper’s final sub-chapter IV (Conclusion), I come up with the suggestion that, even though there are indeed a number of technical/methodological deficiencies to the USE, it nevertheless cannot be brushed off as utterly ineffective.

In order to prove the validity of this suggestion, I mention that fact that, due to the USE being fully consistent with the discourse of post-modernity (which happened to be technology-driven), those in charge of adjusting the exam’s questions/assignments on an annual basis, are more than capable of improving the technical and methodological subtleties of the USE’s continuous implementation. After all, this particular quality of the policy in question implies that there is indeed much of procedural flexibility to it. In its turn, this provides us with a good reason to believe that, as time goes on, the USE’s practical implementation will be becoming ever more deficiency-fee. This effectively ends the paper.


Anistratenko, Oksana. (2005). New trends in Russian education. International Educator, 14 (1), 10-12. Web.

Gounko, T. & Smale, W. (2007). Modernisation of Russian higher education: Exploring paths of influence. Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education, 37 (4), 533–548. Web.

Luk’yanova, E. (2012). Russian educational reform and the introduction of the Unified State Exam: A view from the provinces. Europe-Asia Studies, 64 (10), 1893-1910. Web.

Zamyatin, K. (2012). The education reform in Russia and its impact on teaching of the minority languages: An effect of nation-building? Journal on Ethnopolitics and Minority Issues in Europe, 11 (1), 17–47. Web.

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