Perverting the system

How should we measure the progress of schooling? We should strive for a balance between three sets of indicators in assessing the outcomes of our school system: quality, opportunity and efficiency. And, given the chronic underperformance of the South African system in comparison with many of our poorer neighbours, the highest priority should be given to quality.

The quality of school outcomes essentially depends on learners’ ability to analyse, describe and reason in natural and mathematical languages, in verbal and written forms. From this perspective, much obviously stands on how well the learner can speak, read and write in the language used as the medium of instruction.

This is where the majority of South African learners suffer their greatest educational disadvantage, having to learn all their subjects in English—for most a second or even third language.
It follows that one of the most important mechanisms for improving the quality of schooling for the greatest number would be to raise the standard of the language curricula and to improve the teaching and learning of all languages, but especially the language of instruction.

In this regard the provisions in the new curriculum, to be implemented in grades one to three next year, which give greater weight to the learning of English as a subject from the first year of schooling, are to be welcomed. At high-school level, the fact that those who do not speak English as a home language are schooled in what is known as English First Additional Language (EFAL) is a major disadvantage. EFAL is pitched in a lower academic register than English Home Language (EHL) and therefore EFAL learners do not acquire as easily the linguistic resources needed to sustain sophisticated arguments in subjects such as history, biology and chemistry.

Perhaps we should strive to move more schools and greater numbers of children on to the EHL curriculum and set the ratio of EHL to EFAL passes as one indicator of matric quality. Given the emotional nature of the language debate, this is likely to be a controversial proposal, but if we are serious about improving quality, it is one the country needs to face.

Because all students are required to take either maths or maths literacy, a second important quality indicator for the system would be the ratio of maths to maths literacy passes. Nearly 36 000 fewer candidates registered to write maths in matric 2010 compared with 2008, and nearly 9 000 fewer passed.

This indicates that principals are directing pupils away from maths towards maths literacy, a practice that narrows pupils’ options for further study. It is another trick for making it easier to pass and hence to increase the school’s pass rate, but it is a cynical step that disadvantages the learner.

Third mathematics paper
Further, I would suggest that we also begin to measure the number of candidates who write the third mathematics paper, which deals with the tougher aspects of the subject and which is currently optional. Here, the universities should take the lead. For example, faculties of mathematics, statistics and engineering could set paper three as first a “recommendation for entry” and later as a requirement. In parallel, the department of basic education should measure and report annually the proportion of pupils taking the third paper.

A final quality consideration is to track the level of cognitive challenge posed by the matric question papers in all subjects. This is a joint effort on the part of the department of basic education and Umalusi, because the department commissions the setting of exam papers whereas Umalusi records the quality of the papers in terms of cognitive demand through analysis by external moderators.

What it is that the system is trying to achieve—which is what standards are about—lies at the heart of schooling. There should be an open discussion about what these should be. Discussion about standards and how to assess them is one of the most powerful forms of teacher development, which is perhaps the most important reason of all for promoting debate in public and professional forums.

On the question of educational opportunity, there is strong evidence to indicate that principals screened pupils in 2010, weeding out higher-risk candidates to increase the matric pass rate. One way in which school principals do this is by telling high-risk candidates that they are free to register as part-time candidates, but that they may not register full-time with the school.

This is one interpretation of the drop in full-time numbers in most provinces in 2010, accompanied by an increase in part-time enrolment. Full-time registrations decreased by 7 706 (1,3%) in 2009 and by a much larger 21 771 (3,7%) in 2010. As it is only those candidates who write in a full-time capacity who are counted in calculating pass rates, moving candidates to part-time status is a way to manipulate the pass rate. But this mechanism disadvantages pupils because they can no longer rely on the support of the school in approaching the matric exams.

Ratio of grade 11 learners
Another way to manipulate pass rates at school level is to screen learners at the end of grade 11. There is evidence that this is happening on a large scale, with a fall-off in school enrolment between grades 11 and 12 of about one-third across the country.

The ratio of grade 11 learners to matric candidates would be a good measure of the extent to which the school optimises opportunity for the greatest number.

The progress of our school system towards providing quality education for all must be measured by tracking indicators of quality, opportunity and efficiency. Unfortunately, an exclusive focus on the last of these—as measured by the pass rate—provides strong perverse incentives for officials, principals and teachers to withhold opportunity by failing pupils in grade 11 or insisting that they register as part-time candidates and to compromise quality by moving them on to an easier subject set.

We need to use a more sophisticated set of indicators that gives incentives to all actors in the system to improve the quality of teaching and learning, rather than look for ways to game the system at the expense of individual pupils and the country as a whole.

Nick Taylor is a research fellow at JET Education Services, a visiting researcher at the University of the Witwatersrand and a member of Umalusi’s assessment standards committee. He writes in his personal capacity. This is the second of a six-part series in the M&G by arrangement with Umalusi, the state’s quality-assurance organisation, to promote greater awareness of Umalusi’s functioning

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