Exam rewrite court case disadvantaged the class of 2020

I was chatting with some grade 12 learners who had completed their Grade 12 National Senior Certificate (NSC) or matriculation exams. They said they were not sure which was worse: to immediately repeat the Maths Paper 2 and Physical Science Paper 2 examinations, which were leaked, or to wait until early 2021 for Umalusi to decide on the credibility and integrity of the NSC. 

If Umalusi found there were substantive questions in relation to certify the integrity of the two leaked papers, it could mean that the papers must be rewritten sometime in 2021.

Umalusi is an independent statutory institution responsible for the certification of qualifications at all schools, TVET colleges and adult learning centres and is one of three education quality councils (the others being the Council on Higher Education and the Quality Council for Trades and Occupations).

Each of the quality councils, together with the South African Qualifications Authority, are expected to contribute to maintain a nationally transformed, equitable and quality-assured education and training system.

Umalusi is the quality guardian of the South African national schooling system. It is mandated to oversee and pronounce on the integrity and quality of general and further education and training qualifications and examinations at exit points.

This includes the task to protect society and learners from poor quality education and training, and which includes assuring the integrity and credibility of issued certificates.

Umalusi’s quality mandate

Umalusi is tasked to ensure and enhance academic standards through setting and monitoring standards for general and further education and training.

It does this by accrediting the providers of general and further education and training, and assessment. Most importantly, it moderates examinations or key assessments at exit points to ensure that they are fair, valid and reliable as an assurance to learners and to society.

A learner who receives an Umalusi-endorsed certificate rightfully expects that it will be the gateway to employment or further study, without questions being raised about the credibility of the certificate due to the quality of education or due to a breach of examination or assessment procedures.

Exam paper leaks

It wasn’t enough that in 2020 South Africa found itself in the midst of a Covid-19 pandemic. Matriculants’ stress levels were compounded by the news of the deliberate leaking of two NSC exam papers in late 2020.

It had a severe impact, and not only on those writing their NSC exams. It also raised questions about the credibility and security of the national examination processes. The harsh reality that such leaks, however small, always damage a country’s education reputation and call into question the validity of its certificates. As any reputable academic would agree there is in education no such thing as a “small” examination leak.

In a legal challenge to prevent the immediate rewrite of two leaked papers, Judge N Davis, in overturning the department of basic education’s (DBE) decision to rewrite the two papers, said, “Our children are our future and their education should be the door to that future. The sins of dishonesty and greed have inserted themselves into the hinges of that door. These sins, helped along by desperation to succeed, manifested themselves by the ‘leaking’ of two exam papers prior to the writing of two subjects … being for many of our youth, the culmination of their school careers.”

The DBE is challenging certain sections of the judgment.

It is disconcerting that the judgment, delivered in haste, failed to sufficiently understand the larger education context, the roles of various education structures and bodies, and wider implications for the class of 2020.

Certifying the exam process

It cannot be reasonably argued that Umalusi intends to punish learners caught up in the exam leaks. As a quality council, it has no control over the logistics or direct implementation of national exam processes. On the basis of evidence it must independently deal with making a declaration on the quality and integrity of the examination processes.

It is not for Umalusi to prescribe to any examining body whether or not to rewrite an examination. That must be weighed against the imperative of protecting the integrity of the examinations and the assessment process. Reading the court judgment, it is difficult to understand how inconvenience to learners measures up against the alternative scenario.

In ensuring quality and integrity of the national education system, the quality councils cannot be influenced by populist thinking and interference, as appears to partly be the case in this instance.

Considered and prudent action should be taken, rather than a “wait and see” approach which seemed to be the argument from those who approached the high court for relief. From a quality assurance perspective, Umalusi could not apply a “wait and see” approach when it clearly witnessed evident damage to the credibility of two of the examinations.

Assuring educational quality is not only a proactive exercise of authority, but also prudently reactive. Ask the many students, parents, guardians and sponsors who regularly complain to regulators about the quality of their education or on the basis of poor administrative or procedural concerns.

I shudder to think about the implications in this judgment of a legal precedent being set for universities or other education institutions, should there be a leak of an examination paper. No matter the robustness of institutional procedures, it does happen from time to time that there are examination paper leaks. I am not aware of any instance where a university or education institution did not take immediate and decisive action in this regard.

No question paper must leak before it is written — no matter how small the leak is. No self-respecting country should tolerate or accept failure to act if an examination paper is leaked before learners sit for a scheduled exam.

A “wait and see” approach would mean the affected learners of the class of 2020 could be plunged into chaos if the results were to be rejected in February 2021; a time they would be preparing to go into the world of work, universities or further education. 

Umalusi was correct in advising the department that the papers were irrevocably compromised. Quality assurance is an active process and not a passive one. Umalusi has been prudent in this instance.

Should Umalusi not certify the results of the two exams because it determined that the integrity and credibility of the two papers were “irrevocably compromised”, we face an unmitigated disaster for the class of 2020.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.

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Mark Hay
Dr Mark Hay is a former executive director for quality assurance at the Council on Higher Education. He writes in his personal capacity.

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