Panyaza Lesufi | Amidst Covid-19: Has the standardisation of examination results been used properly?

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Gauteng's top matric achievers were honoured at a ceremony attended by Premier David Makhura and Education MEC Panyaza Lesufi.
Gauteng's top matric achievers were honoured at a ceremony attended by Premier David Makhura and Education MEC Panyaza Lesufi.
PHOTO: Sharon Seretlo/Gallo Images

Given the growing emphasis on standardised tests as measures of the performance of our schools and our children, we must monitor the use of these tests to ensure that they do not deny educational opportunities to students based on their race and ethnicity, writes Panyaza Lesufi. 

Is the standardisation of examination results a positive trend? It could be - if used properly.

For the National Senior Certificate (NSC) Class of 2020, the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic brought major changes to teaching and learning, which required a shift to distance learning. Indeed, it is common cause that the class of 2020 was confronted with one of the worst global pandemics in the history of human development.

Education Paradigm Shift  

The 2020 NSC candidates had fewer opportunities for learning and teaching. The pandemic lockdown brought an unprecedented paradigm shift as a result of social distancing, isolation and quarantine measures. Schools were subjected to closure due to Covid-19 cases and learners didn't have enough time to do practicals or even work as groups.

This is the only class that got taught, studied and wrote exams with masks on, and in certain instances, under extremely hot conditions. Some of these learners soldiered on despite being sick with Covid-19 during teaching and learning, and even when they were writing exams. 

These challenges were unexpected for students and teachers, and many countries cancelled their academic years and opted for school based assessment only, however, through this experience, we had some notable successes.

Has standardisation been used properly?  

So, amidst Covid-19, has the standardisation of examination results been used properly?

Of course educational leaders are increasingly relying on standardised tests and results to determine the progress of learners. They are using these tests to make decisions with high-stakes consequences for learners, which include admission to universities or technical institutions.

When tests are used to make educational decisions for students, they are supposed to accurately measure a student's abilities, knowledge, skills, or needs, in ways that do not discriminate.

Given the growing emphasis on standardised tests as measures of the performance of our schools and our children, we must monitor the use of these tests to ensure that they do not deny educational opportunities to students based on their race and ethnicity.

I am made to believe that the purpose of standardisation is to deal with factors and or variables which create unfair conditions to cohorts that sit for the exams from year to year, so that one cohort shouldn't feel like it was born or wrote the exams in the wrong year.

Umalusi, the country's education quality assurance body, defines Standardisation as "the accepted process used to reduce fluctuations in learner performance that result from identified factors within the examination processes themselves rather than from the knowledge, aptitude and abilities of the learners.” 

I have been looking forward to Umalusi's statement on the approval of the results to establish what the organisation has done to standardise - that is - mark the average results, up, down or leave them as raw as they are. 

Unfortunately, instead of promoting educational excellence for all students, high-stakes tests often unfairly deny educational opportunities to students based on their race and ethnicity. 

I was shocked to realise that the hard work of the class of 2020 has been used against them. Their only sin is that they conquered Covid-19 conditions and were poised to be not only the most resilient, but also the strongest class ever.

Technology highlighted significant challenges  

True, technology has made possible unprecedented connections between instructors and learners and amongst students. Use of videoconferencing tools allowed education to continue through a fundamentally new approach - where groups of students can learn together, remotely, in real time.

The latest technology, which combines technology-based learning with face-to-face learning has liberated education from the classically-structured classroom paradigm.

However, the move to more remote education has highlighted significant challenges that distance learning poses for poverty stricken families lacking computer devices or having problems with internet connectivity.

Covid-19 has challenged instructors and students to adjust their strategies for teaching and learning. Teachers were thrust into the online environment so unexpectedly that many were not afforded the opportunity to consider pedagogy critically. 

The strength of the Class of 2020 was evident in the data, information from marking processes shared with Umalusi and the Evidence Based Report which was presented to them on the 31 January 2021. This has further been demonstrated in university entrance and distinctions results shared before standardisation. 

It was even wrong for Umalusi to compare this class to any other class because they had to contend with conditions that no class had ever faced.

It was also wrong for Umalusi to use exactly the same yardstick in standardising the results of the Department of Basic Education (DBE) with extremely small assessment bodies which don't have any justification to even exist. These are not comparable in size and shape.

I have indicated several times before, these should just be merged into one Examinations Council. In fact, the decisions of these assessment bodies are even much more favourable than DBE decisions which caters for children of the poor and unemployed who are always the biggest in number, many of whom didn't have the luxury of online virtual learning and extra lessons from tutors.

I had hoped that at least for the first time one would get to appreciate the role and the relevance of Umalusi when it comes to standardisation. It is now abundantly clear to me that those who are involved in the process of standardisation are just interested in chasing numbers and graphs. 

If Covid-19 didn't afford Umalusi a golden opportunity to demonstrate the value and relevance for its existence, what on earth can do so?

One cannot help but to arrive to this inescapable conclusion that these experts who are responsible for standardisation are completely out of touch with the reality of what happens in schools and the lives of South African children and the world in general.

It's about time that we have experts who are not only in touch with reality, but up to speed with what happens in schools and real life, instead of those who religiously stick to their figures and graphs.

- Lesufi is the Gauteng Education MEC

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