As thousands of university students protested, hundreds of thousands of pupils sat the National Senior Certificate (NSC) examinations. In January, commentators will write about the joys and woes of the results of these exams.
My argument over the years has been that we put far too much emphasis on the results. The stakes of the NSC exams, which act as a gatekeeper for too many pupils, are high. Very few achieve the kinds of results that provide access to higher education or meaningful jobs. Trevor Manuel, when he was the minister of planning, said that in his estimation it would take about seven years for the average black female matriculant to find employment after completing school.
A great deal of teaching time is lost to exams. In the matric year, for example, we have June exams, preliminaries and then the finals, losing about three months of teaching time. This is lamentable: teachers have to race through the curriculum and teach after hours to cover all the content.
Exams create anxiety. Every morning on my way to school, I pass a huge billboard advertising an over-the-counter medication to help pupils to relax and concentrate better. Most pupils seem to navigate this stressful time without too much difficulty. But there are those pupils for whom this time is just too much, and the consequences for these pupils can be tragic.
Our education reforms since the advent of democracy have allowed for course work, projects, group work and other activities to be assessed. But the written examination has not been dislodged from its pedestal, and its role among the array of other possible assessment strategies is, in my view, still far too big.
The current system is doggedly focused on the NSC and the outcome of these exams. Right now, provincial education departments are scrambling to ensure that they make it to the top of the pass-rate list in January.
When employers are asked about the system, they mainly express concern about the poor standard of young people’s writing ability and oral presentation skills. They suggest that pupils should be given more opportunity to make oral presentations and to write in different styles for different audiences. Employers definitely want staff who can think critically and solve problems when they are confronted with them.
So are we really moving forwards with our exam system? Are we really addressing some of the concerns of employers?
In 1831 in England, when the politician-to-be William Gladstone took his final exams at university, he was assessed orally, which was a central part of his final degree result. It wasn’t only his memory that was put to the test but also his ability to think fast, to make a case and to demonstrate his capabilities as a lawyer.
At this stage in our history, I am unsure of where we are heading with education in South Africa. It seems that, with all of the pressure of achievement in the NSC, we are heading in the worst direction – that of the high-achieving countries such as Singapore and South Korea.
Several years ago, a reporter investigated what he called “Gangnam-style” tuition in Korea, where more than $30-billion is spent a year by parents on private tuition to help their children do better in high-stakes college entrance exams. The government in Korea has since been forced to bring in a 10pm curfew on the hagwon – Korean for private-learning institutes – to allow children to get to bed earlier.
“Schooling is not stressful,” said one Korean pupil. “It is the tuition homework that is very stressful.”
The pupil only got to bed around midnight on weekdays. Some hagwon owners operate for longer hours on weekends to circumvent the curfew. They also give pupils more homework or use online learning.
Children in South Africa’s lower grades are not free from exam tyranny either. The annual national assessments have introduced young children to standardised multiple-choice tests. Pupils have had to demonstrate their prowess in literacy and numeracy.
Some argue that an overemphasis on standardised testing hurts the quality of teaching that pupils receive, and that the current system of accountability, which uses the same tests to measure trends in achievement and ranks schools, necessarily promotes teaching the test.
One thing I am sure of is that national tests are very good at measuring socioeconomic status. In research on schooling and class, it is clear that wealthier pupils have parents with more time to spend with their children and more money to pay for additional curriculum support. Research also shows that pupils from wealthy families generally have better health and more suitable housing than their lower-income friends.
All these factors lead to higher achievement. But don’t get me wrong – there are always children who manage to succeed despite the difficult circumstances they find themselves in.
Mark Potterton is the principal of the Holy Family College, in Johannesburg’s Parktown. He was a chief operating officer of Umalusi, the national examinations watchdog.