Adjust results transparently

2011-01-15 12:55

Can we trust the matric results? Every year, we seem to go through the ritual of disbelief about the matric results.

Some years we worry that they are too bad to be acceptable, other years we think the results are too good to be true.

This year is no different.

Critics are sceptical that the pass ­results could have improved by so much in the year of the extended World Cup holiday and the teachers’ strike.

The body that finally authorises the release of the results – Umalusi – is under attack because it won’t reveal which subjects were adjusted upwards and how this adjustment was done.

Some people don’t believe that Umalusi is a truly independent body.

I am on the Assessment Standards Committee of Umalusi that actually does the review of the results and ­adjusts them where necessary, so I have some thoughts on the matter.

Firstly, I must affirm that I believe that the adjustment process is done with integrity and genuine independence.

The committee itself is largely composed of university-based educationists and statisticians.

They do not mess around with the results.

I must add that it is clear that what Umalusi does is poorly understood by the general public.

 (One has to admit, incidentally, that some of what it does is rather complicated and would not be fully understood by those not mathematically literate.)

The call for Umalusi to come clean on how it does this “standardisation” of results I fully agree with.

These ­results are public matters and the public, in a democracy, has the right of access to information.

The release of information on which subjects were adjusted ­upwards and which down is useful information to teachers, subject advisors, students, universities, and employers.

A public better educated on how the matric results are processed would be in a better position to understand what works and what does not work in our education system.

It also helps identify subjects that require extra teaching support.

It is important for the public to ­understand why the results are standardised.

Standardisation of ­national examination results happens in every country of the world.

Standardisation tries to ensure that the results issued for this year are fair not only to this year’s students but also to last year’s and to next year’s students.

If the exam ­papers in one year are a bit easier than a previous year’s, the marks must be adjusted downwards.

Otherwise this year’s candidates would have an unfair advantage over those who wrote last year – they might, for example, because they have a higher symbol, get preference for a job.

If an examination system is running well, the examiners produce fair but challenging papers, which are then checked and moderated, and the results in any year should be similar to those from similar students writing in other years.

In such an examination system there are few irregularities and the irregularities – cheating, poor invigilation, leaked papers, etc – are dealt with speedily and effectively.

(I might add that any large examination system that does not report any ­irregularities is fatally flawed ­because in any mass of people there will always be a few cheats and crooks, and if there are no reports of this then the cheats and crooks are escaping undetected.)

Standardisation of results does not operate with the idea that there is a fixed holy rule about what percentage of learners should pass and how many should fail.

Pass rates are ­adjusted based on a thorough ­examination of the quality and ­difficulty of the papers, what the raw results are like and on factors such as improvements in the education system during the past years.

When it comes to the most recent matric results there were some ­factors which suggested the education system had improved.

These included that this was the third year of the new Senior Certificate examination; so teachers, examiners and ­students were better prepared and more familiar with what to expect.

There were, however, worries about the impact of the teachers’ strike.

The final outcome was that there was a small improvement of a couple of percentage points in the overall results.

This was, presumably, an enormous relief to the ­Department of Basic Education. But some problems remain.

One of the problems is the large number of learners who merely scrape through to pass.

There is a huge mass of learners who gain only a little more than 30%.

Because there are so many concentrated at the pass point, even the small percentage point rise in the marks has pushed many candidates who nearly failed across the pass line – this is the explanation for the large rise in the pass rate (7.2% in fact).

So that 7.2% increase in the passes is not really good news if the education system is producing large numbers of learners who are weak and ­ill-educated.

As people have ­remarked: would you be happy to go to a doctor who only got 30% in the final medical exam or get into an aeroplane with a 30% proficient pilot.

The other problem, which is difficult for Umalusi to adjust for, was the ­sudden increase in the number of candidates.

Was it natural growth, or were they weak students held back in Grades 10 and 11, and now finally ­given their chance to write?

This is all complex information.

But the more we all grapple with understanding it, the more likely we are to understand what must be done to improve our poorly functioning ­education system.

So the debate about whether Umalusi should reveal the details about its standardisation processes for last year’s matric exam is an ­important one.

I would argue that transparency is best for all of us in the long run.

» Aitchison is Professor Emeritus of Adult ­Education at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

He writes in his own capacity 

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