How do we know that pro­gress­ing a fail­ing pupil is right?

A de­ci­sion to move some­one into the next grade de­spite prob­lems must be based on pro­fes­sional judge­ment, writes

CityPress - - Voices -

Umalusi, the in­de­pen­dent body that qual­ity as­sures the na­tional se­nior cer­tifi­cate (NSC), and the de­part­ment of ba­sic ed­u­ca­tion have pro­vided cred­i­ble rea­sons for the de­cline of the NSC re­sults.

The first is that it is re­lated to sys­tem re­cal­i­bra­tion on ac­count of the new cur­ricu­lum and its more de­mand­ing cog­ni­tive con­tent. Such ad­just­ments are part of the sci­ence of large-scale as­sess­ments and are to be ex­pected.

The sec­ond rea­son is a de­ci­sion by the min­is­ter: the pro­mo­tion of pupils who did not meet the re­quire­ment for en­try into Grade 12 (pro­gressed pupils). This has been con­tro­ver­sial and re­quires care­ful ex­am­i­na­tion.

The third also touches on a ma­jor chal­lenge: lan­guage. Umalusi has ex­plained that the lan­guage com­pen­sa­tion for can­di­dates writ­ing the ex­am­i­na­tion in a lan­guage other than their home lan­guage has been de­creased from 5% since 2014 and will be whit­tled away un­til it has been phased out in 2018.

At the same time, Umalusi ac­knowl­edges that pupils writ­ing in a lan­guage other than their home lan­guage ex­pe­ri­ence great dif­fi­culty in in­ter­pret­ing ques­tions and phras­ing their re­sponses.

We need to un­der­stand the ac­tual con­se­quences for the pass rate of the “pro­gressed learn­ers” be­fore look­ing at the ed­u­ca­tional and so­cial im­pacts. As many as 38% of the 58 600 of these achieved a pass. Umalusi es­ti­mates the over­all im­pact of the “pro­gressed” pupils was a 3% de­cline in the NSC re­sults. How can this be a pos­i­tive step?

We are painfully con­scious that ev­ery year the ma­tric class – of whom 70% have passed on av­er­age over the past eight years – does not in­clude all the pupils who started 12 years ear­lier.

In Grade 11 an es­ti­mated 40% of pupils drop out; 30% drop out in Grade 10; and 25% in Grade 9.

The de­ci­sion to “progress” pupils is there­fore a bold step to stem this seep­ing away of the hopes of our youth, and is an in­vi­ta­tion to ed­u­ca­tion­ists to think rig­or­ously about what we know about fail­ure, re­peat­ing grades and pro­gres­sion.

Pro­gress­ing pupils is con­tro­ver­sial – largely be­cause of the ad­di­tional bur­den placed on teach­ers who al­ready work un­der dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances with in­suf­fi­cient sup­port.

Grade rep­e­ti­tion is not a pun­ish­ment for un­der­per­for­mance. It should be a pro­fes­sional judge­ment based on an ap­pre­hen­sion of the whole child and his or her ca­pa­bil­ity of suc­ceed­ing in the next grade. The “pro­gres­sion” de­ci­sion may be cor­rectly mov­ing this judge­ment back into the pro­fes­sional rather than the bu­reau­cratic do­main. Pro­gres­sion de­ci­sions can­not be made by for­mu­laic com­pli­ance.

Re­searchers in the Western Cape have es­tab­lished that pro­gres­sion in high schools has el­e­ments of a lot­tery and there is an ur­gent need to strengthen the link be­tween as­sess­ment and ac­tual learn­ing. The min­is­ter’s de­ci­sion has opened this up and re­search is needed to pro­pel new ways of think­ing, and of sup­port­ing teach­ers’ work.

The sec­ond area is even more com­plex, and pro­vokes deep emo­tion. This is the mat­ter of re­mov­ing lan­guage com­pen­sa­tion.

No fur­ther ar­gu­ment is needed to main­tain the “lan­guage com­pen­sa­tion” for sec­ond lan­guage pupils than to re­pro­duce the first ma­jor find­ing of the di­ag­nos­tic re­port of the de­part­ment for 2015: “There is a strong cor­re­la­tion be­tween read­ing skills of can­di­dates and their in­abil­ity to de­code the re­quire­ments of a ques­tion … the poor lan­guage skills of nu­mer­ous can­di­dates are a ma­jor rea­son for un­der­achieve­ment. This ad­versely af­fects the abil­ity of those can­di­dates to in­ter­pret ques­tions and source ma­te­rial ac­cu­rately, and to frame ap­pro­pri­ate re­sponses to ques­tions.” We can agree that we must im­prove the ca­pa­bil­ity of pupils us­ing a sec­ond lan­guage, but if the NSC di­ag­nos­tic re­port says we are fail­ing to do so – is it the right time to re­move the lan­guage com­pen­sa­tion?

Nei­ther of these con­ver­sa­tions is easy. The un­der­ly­ing chal­lenges are sys­temic and com­plex, and per­sist be­cause they are deeply en­trenched.

We should dis­trust glib so­lu­tions. We do not need quick fixes that are not ev­i­dence-based and sus­tain­able. We need a frank iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of our prob­lems and pub­lic de­bates in which key stake­hold­ers par­tic­i­pate, es­pe­cially teach­ers.

Met­calfe is a pro­fes­sor of ed­u­ca­tion at Wits Univer­sity

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