A political decision to consider reviewing an assessment method for medical students at Wits University was allegedly among options to be debated internally following an outcry over its use.
City Press has learnt from reliable sources in the higher education sector that Wits enquired from two senior researchers with intimate knowledge of the Cohen method to confirm its suitability.
To allow for the varying difficulties of exams, the Cohen method establishes an exam pass mark by using a fixed percentage of the marks of the best students.
Critics say this assessment method is unfair and discriminatory, especially to students from poor schools because it does not take into account their historical challenges.
The new method provoked an outcry after some former medical students, who had been excluded in 2016 and 2017, criticised the university for introducing Cohen 60 for “high stake” exams saying it was meant to disadvantage poor students.
Earlier this month, Cohen 60 was in the spotlight again after only 15 of the 46 medical students passed the Colleges of Medicines of SA (CMSA) exams.
Medical experts, sources claimed last week, have also criticised the Cohen 60 method.
But Wits spokesperson Buhle Zuma on Friday denied there had been consultations on the issue.
“There is no decision that is being considered by the university regarding the use of the Cohen 60, neither political nor academic,” said Zuma.
This was contrary to what sources told City Press.
They claimed Wits approached two senior researchers who are experts on Cohen 60 because it was perceived to be excluding students from poor schools – quintile one, two and three schools mostly in townships, rural and farm areas.
Some of the students, sources claimed, were excluded despite scoring 58% instead of 60% as required by Cohen 60.
In the past, sources alleged, the pass rate was 50%, which they claimed was still the case in other medical schools.
One of the researchers contacted by Wits allegedly told the university that its decision to continue using Cohen 60 was based on political and not scientific choices.
This seems to support the view of Dr Thifheli Luvhengo, a respected medical practitioner, who told City Press last week that there was no science behind the use of Cohen.
“Cohen is a bad method. There is nothing about Cohen that can be defended scientifically. It’s a wishy-washy method,” Luvhengo said.
The row over the use of Cohen 60 was also reported to Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane in April to investigate.
However, Wits said in July Mkhwebane had decided on a conciliation approach instead.
Asked for an update on that process, Zuma forwarded City Press the same response sent in July indicating that there was a conciliation process under way and a report would be released within six months.
Oupa Segalwe, acting spokesperson for Mkhwebane’s office, had not responded at the time of writing.
Luvhengo made a submission to the CMSA and Health Professional Council of SA (HPCSA) about his criticism of Cohen method.
He said his criticism of Cohen 60 was not confidential and confirmed that the CMSA and HPCSA were aware of his views.
He said there were people who shared his views and there was a probe under way instituted by the sector to investigate standard-setting methods, not only Cohen.
In his submission seen by City Press, Luvhengo said the aim was to provide background information to the leadership of the country, government, higher education institutions, examination and regulatory bodies and perhaps globally that concerns raised around the use of the Cohen method and its modifications merit an investigation.
“Presumed low-income status and labour intensiveness of preferred and reliable standard-setting methods cannot be used to justify the use of Cohen’s method of standard setting in South Africa. The use of the Cohen method is unfair, unjustifiable and indefensible.
“The sole purpose of introducing it in South Africa appears to have been to control the pass rate which is known to dramatically improve if the quality of examination is enhanced such as introduction of good SBA [single based answers] and MCQ [multichoice questions] and equalisation of training platforms and teaching exposure,” Luvhengo said.
“It has however led to apprehension and persistent allegations that improvement of pass rate of black candidates at both basic and higher education levels equates to lowering of academic standards, which puts communities at risk,” he stated.
Dr Flavia Senkubuge, president of CMSA, said they have not received Luvhengo’s submission. However, she said the case of the surgeons who failed exams at five universities was not linked to the use of the Cohen method.
Should South African universities reconsider the Cohen assessment method?
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