Comment and Analysis

Why, as a teacher, I'm suspicious of latest matric results

Maryke Bailey

We need to question the standard that has been set as acceptable for history, as well as the quality of the markers themselves, writes Maryke Bailey.

What some history departments teach their learners as basics appear to be viewed as refined skills by national standards. (Delwyn Verasamy)

Most people have something to say about the 2013 matric results. I know that unions speak on behalf of the teachers, but I thought that I could add my voice as an ordinary history teacher. I do not represent a variety of teachers or stakeholders; I speak on behalf of myself and the standards I believe we should try to foster and maintain.

My school usually achieves an excellent matric average for our history learners and this year was no different: 67 learners wrote the exams and the average was 78%. Twenty-nine learners got distinctions and a further 30 achieved above 70%. So, really, our department should be flushed with joy and success.

And yet, I'm not doing a victory dance.

To be fair, we try our best. We train learners well, challenge them and create our own resources. But surely there is something awry if our average is that high? It certainly wasn't that high during their schooling career. Indeed, if their average had been so high, I'm sure questions would have been asked about whether or not we were being too lenient. I am not a matric teacher but I did teach our 2013 matrics in Grades 10 and 11 and have a pretty good idea of their strengths, which is why I am suspicious of their final results. I don't deny that learners can make a huge leap between Grade 11 and 12 if they put their minds to it, but how likely is it that virtually all our history learners made this leap at the same time?

So why is our average so high? I'm certain that our learners worked hard (although dedication does not necessarily equal excellence), but I think that we need to question the standard that has been set as acceptable for history, as well as the quality of the markers themselves.

Unlike the sciences, the humanities provide a greater scope for a relative standard regarding correct answers. Markers need to compare learners' answers to gauge a specific standard. It is also trickier to interpret the memo, which calls for discretion when marking a learner's script. I guess, when compared to the rest of the country's history candidates, our learners came across as very erudite, which would explain their high average. Their marks probably reflect where they are in relation to their peers. In comparison to many other learners, I suppose their answers did seem detailed and in depth. 

Unfortunately, I think this proves how low the standards are as well as the low expectations we have of the learners in South Africa. What our history department teaches our learners as basics appear to be viewed as refined skills by national standards. We need to have more faith that when we raise our expectations, we will raise the overall standard of teaching and learning. 

Apart from questioning the quality of acceptable answers, I also wonder whether the markers embody what history as a subject strives to achieve. I wonder whether the structure of the answers and the language our learners used impressed the markers or whether they actually scrutinised the content and arguments. We don't want a society where people are duped by flowery language and vague speeches. Surely we want to develop a society where content is analysed critically, which is a core skill in history. Yet, are the markers doing this themselves? I think there is a very strong case for competency tests for markers so that our minds can be set at ease about this specific concern.

I am frustrated because, as a teacher, I am limited on what knowledge I can divulge about what happens behind the scenes. I'm tearing my hair out because education specialists, politicians and NGOs are all adding their voices but, apart from the unions, the voices of individual teachers, those in the know, are muted.

As far as history is concerned, what appears to be accepted as answers brings the worth of a distinction into question. This isn't fair on the learners. Many of them will enter university with an inflated sense of their capabilities, only to find themselves propelled back to reality. It's no mystery why so many students don't manage to complete their degrees within the usual three years; they were duped into a false sense of security.

I think it's time that we are honest with our learners about what they can and cannot do. Praise and encouragement are necessary but it is wrong to deceive learners about their strengths. I know that if we raise the standards more learners will fail, but I don't see how lowering standards and passing all the thousands of incapable students is helping either. 

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