Unions slam plans to ‘outsource’ exams for tens of millions of rands

The basic education department wants successful bidders to prepare questions for tests and exams, taking over a core responsibility of teachers. Photo: Shelley Christians/The Times/ Gallo Images

The basic education department wants successful bidders to prepare questions for tests and exams, taking over a core responsibility of teachers. Photo: Shelley Christians/The Times/ Gallo Images

Teachers and teacher unions have slammed a department of basic education plan to outsource the setting of exam questions at a cost of millions of rands.

Setting questions for tests and exams, including the matric exams, has always been a core responsibility of teachers and, with the exception of those setting matric papers, they are not paid extra for this duty.

The department has put out a tender inviting bidders with the capability to develop “a world-class repository of questions” to apply for the contract.

A successful bidder will have to provide 500 questions for subjects in certain grades that will be stored in an item bank. These will be used to draw up question papers for, among others, end-of-year exams.

Three bids have been received for developing questions for grades 10 to 12. Bidders’ quotes ranged from R39.9‑million to R77.9‑million. The bids for questions for grades three, six and nine ranged from R4.7‑million to R67.3‑million.

The department said that creating item banks was in line with international best practice of giving teachers access to a large pool of quality test questions. “This initiative is being launched to complement other efforts to support and develop teacher capacity in the highly demanding task of setting high-quality tests of the appropriate standard,” said spokesperson Elijah Mhlanga.

Nick Taylor, a senior research fellow at Jet Education Services, said the mooted item bank of questions showed the department was “attempting to place assessment on a sound scientific footing”.

“Experienced educators are required to generate the [questions] and psychometricians are required to assess the extent to which the [questions] meet the specifications against the responses of learners and to adjust them accordingly,” he said.

But Mugwena Maluleke, general secretary of the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union, said: “Outsourcing says that you don’t have confidence in the system you are running as a minister or a director general. Second, it says you don’t have confidence in the people who are sitting with the child for seven hours a day.

“Hiring external service providers to do the setting of tests takes away the pedagogic autonomy of a teacher. It takes away the respect that the teacher and the child have worked so hard to earn from each other.”

Maluleke said the move would lead to “standardised, high-stakes testing in our country, which is going to add to teachers’ stress levels”.

Questions from the item bank would creep into matric question papers. “They would want to outsource the entire grade 12 exams,” Maluleke said. But it would be left to the department to decide whether test questions would be included in “high-stakes” exams.

A seasoned teacher, who is also involved in setting matric papers, said the department’s move would “disempower” teachers.

“You cannot teach if you don’t know how to set [questions]. Setting [questions] actually enhances your teaching because, in a class, the method of teaching is very important and you use your assessments [tests and exams] to guide your teaching.

“It would send out the message that you don’t have trust in your teachers’ ability to set questions. The department is trying to abdicate its responsibility because this [setting questions] is a big headache for them.”

The principal of Hoërskool Pietersburg, Willie Schoeman, described the department’s move to hire external companies to set questions as “ridiculous”, adding: “We have fantastic educators who are very knowledgeable in the drafting of exam papers. They are teaching those subjects on a daily basis. Who else will know better than them?”

Mhlanga said the item banks would not take away the duty of teachers to design tests but it “should be seen as a tool for support and not a replacement for the assessment programmes that teachers are responsible for”.

At least 30% of the total number of those hired to formulate questions must be practising teachers with a minimum of three years’ teaching experience in that subject. Those appointed to review the questions must have seven years’ experience in that particular subject. The questions will be pre-tested by using a random sample of at least 50 schools and a minimum of 25 learners per school.

“The current approach of removing teachers from their classrooms to set matric papers at a centralised venue in Pretoria is not sustainable. These educators are made to sacrifice their primary commitment to learners in the classroom. Hence the creation of item banks, which will enable the department to use the test questions from these banks for different purposes, which will include exams,” said Mhlanga. 

During the first phase of their 18-month contract, successful bidders will set questions for maths, maths literacy, life sciences, physical science and English first additional language in grades 10 to 12. They will also set questions for accounting and business studies in grades 10 and 11.

In the other grades they will be required to set questions for English home language in grade three as well as English first additional language and maths in grades six and nine.

According to the contract, the department plans to start setting question papers for tests and exams using questions from the item bank within the next few years.

Basil Manuel, executive director of the National Professional Teachers’ Organisation of South Africa, said teachers had been setting question papers since time immemorial.

“You will be deprofessionalising the profession because you are taking away one of the their primary responsibilities. You will also be taking away creativity. We are not in favour of item banks. We are saying the solution lies in improving the skills of heads of departments and subject advisers to better manage the quality assurance of tests in schools.”

Said Manuel: “The money we pay examiners [teachers who set matric papers] pales into insignificance when you look at what service providers want. The appointment of a service provider will herald a sad day for education in South Africa.”

Mhlanga said the department would only disclose the amount allocated to hire the services of providers when an agency had been appointed. “The amount is part of the total budget to be utilised for teacher development and support and national assessments.”

Umalusi spokesperson Lucky Ditaunyane said the education quality assurance council could not comment on the department’s procurement systems: “We cannot pre-empt the use of the envisaged item bank for matric.”

Professor Sarah Howie, director of the University of Pretoria’s centre for evaluation and assessment, which was one of the bidders, said the money quoted would cover a very large project involving the writing of thousands of questions.

She said the bulk of the cost would go towards the teachers and subject specialists who write and review the questions as well as trying out the questions on a number of learners.

“To design a very good question that is scientifically rigorous takes eight hours. If you have many thousands of these and more than one person has to write and review these, you can imagine that the costs will not be low.”

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