Marks that pass the grade

Umalusi, the council for quality assurance in general and further education and training, has noted with concern the debate that continues to rage regarding the standards of the South African education and training sectors.

We are well aware that there are many -challenges in our education and training system, but we are also -cautious about recommending drastic change without well-grounded research that can chart an educationally sound course for our system.

There is something of a storm in the media and in civil society about the pass mark of 30% for some of the matric exams, for instance. Although Umalusi is firm in its belief that this pass mark sends a poor message to the public about the quality of the national senior certificate (matric), the debate is far more nuanced than just the bare numbers would imply.

First, it must be understood that the previous system of differentiating between higher grade and standard grade has fallen away and the national senior certificate must now cater to all tiers of pupils based on a single exam.

Under the previous system it was not uncommon to fail a subject on higher grade only to have that -failure converted to a pass on standard grade. With just a single exam in place, a pass mark must be arrived at that can cater to pupils who would have just achieved a pass on -standard grade before.

There is a further issue in a pass mark that is meaningful only when the content of an exam is taken into account. If, for instance, an exam consists only of easy questions, then even a minimum mark of 70% would give us little information about how to categorise pupils of high or low ability.

A well-constructed exam is structured so that it is based on an agreed pass mark first and then questions are pitched that will allow that pass mark to discriminate sufficiently between pupils of different abilities. Essentially, a pass mark can be anything you want it to be and it is the content of the exam that determines the discriminatory power of the test.

The assessment of pupils is complex and contentious.

Umalusi’s position is always  to ground our work in rigorous research before -recommending interventions based on what is educationally sound.

As part of this work, we have organised an international conference that will take place from May 10 to 12.

Among the topics to be -discussed will be assessment issues, -language, the setting of educational standards and vocational education.

The conference will be attended by some of the world’s most respected academics and this important interaction will form some of the basis for Umalusi’s ongoing work.

Dr Mafu S Rakometsi is the chief executive of Umalusi

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