Pupils’ lives being ruined by exam plan ‘joke’

The controversial new exam system for grades 10 and 11 allows for a single two-hour paper which will contribute 40% of a pupil’s year mark, with the other 60% coming from school-based assessment.

The government’s plan for the end-of-year examinations for grades 10 and 11 is a joke — except it will ruin the lives of tens of thousands of children and that makes Circular S7 of 2020’s “revised promotion requirements” no laughing matter at all. It really is a pity that our journalism is so weak as to swallow the official line in headlines like “Government scraps final exams”. It did nothing of the sort.

Let’s begin with the before and after Covid-19 picture for assessment in these two senior grades. Before, a pupil’s  final mark was based on a school-based assessment (SBA) mark (25%) and a formal examination at the end of the year (75%, composed of 2 three-hour exams). Now, the SBA mark jumps to 60% and the end-of-year exam contribution is reduced to 40%. Before, the subject exam was typically composed of two papers of 150 marks each completed over three hours each. Now, that exam is a single, consolidated paper of two hours only.

Why is this happening?

There is the official reason and then there is the truth. In a nutshell, the department says that the change was necessary because of the loss of teaching time due to the pandemic-enforced lockdown. Since school-based assessments (forget the misnomer for the moment) are less prescriptive and includes project work that students could do at home during the lockdown, weighting the final assessment towards these kinds of assessments makes logical sense.

Since the examinations tend to focus on formal teaching, not enough work was covered even with the so-called “trimmed” or reduced curriculum to provide sufficient content for a two-paper, three-hour examination in the different subjects.

Now take a closer look. The real reason for shifting the majority of marks towards the SBAs is that for as long as I can remember this was regarded as a way of making easy marks to offset the more rigorous end-of-year exams. So lax is the SBA requirement that you could waste a year and make up this mark up to three weeks before the final exam. It is widely regarded as a sop to weaker students whereby teachers could be generous in the allocation of marks. In the new arrangements, a pupil  could pass without even writing the final exam.

The department’s logic for an exam based on watered-down content, as one official put it, comes to us in the form of this piece of intellectual wizardry: “content not taught cannot be assessed”. Hello? I have been making this point forever that in pre-pandemic times there was already a significant and enduring gap in the instructional time that children in the 80% disadvantaged schools received compared to those in the 20% more privileged schools. Yet the examinations went ahead like clockwork as if every pupil was in fact taught the full content for assessment. It was a lie then, and it is a lie now.

It is not surprising at all, according to my sources, that the more privileged schools have asked and plan to continue with a full-scale examination. Why? Because in those schools the curriculum has been covered through a combination of face-to-face, online, and blended learning.

When the president announced the lockdown, fully online, synchronous teaching continued as if nothing had happened. There are even some schools wanting to continue the tradition of writing cluster papers for grade 11s where pupils from a group of schools write a rigorous common paper in preparation for the all-important grade 12 examination in the next year.

My point is that none of these new arrangements by the department of education redresses this glaring inequity in the provision of education that always existed in the 80/20 split and was simply made more obvious and glaring by the pandemic.

By its own admission, the department is already planning “catch-up” classes in 2021 for its failure to remedy the inequality of provisioning in this school year. The problem of course is that you cannot “catch up” with the children of the privileged who are streaking ahead, and this stubborn fact will reflect in even more unequal academic outcomes for generations to come. Don’t confuse “making up” lost time with “catching up” on inbred inequalities in the school system; that is certainly not what these plans are about.

Change the nomenclature if you wish and call an examination a controlled test. The unalterable truth is that the new promotion arrangements are intended to make it easier to pass at the expense of providing a high-quality education for all our children that does not use examinations as a foil to cover up the failures of the government’s department of basic education.

By Jonathan Jansen

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