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
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