Ladies and Gentlemen
It gives me great pleasure to have this opportunity to address this august occasion – the OR Tambo Debate Series on Assessments.
Programme Director, as we know we owe this rare opportunity to engage with stakeholders robustly and openly to the the Wits School of Governance in association with the Oliver and Adelaide Tambo Foundation.
For posterity, Programme Director, I must point out that the OR Tambo Debate Series seeks to pay tribute to OR Tambo’s attributes as a social justice advocate, a strategic thinker and a formidable debater. Comrade OR Tambo is better remembered as the glue that kept the ANC Mission in Exile together during one of the toughest period of our struggle against the brutal and an illegitimate apartheid regime. We know that OR Tambo recognized realised early on that diplomacy, free discussions and unhindered debates were key ingredients in building unity within the ranks of the exiled movement.
Programme Director, it is therefore a great privilege to welcome you to this important debate on assessments. Precisely because we honestly believe that education is a societal issue, we remain committed to broadening our consultation and engagements with key stakeholders in addressing a number of the challenges that confront us in our pursuit of quality education in our lifetime.
We believe strongly that partnerships in education will yield positive results towards our common vision of building a Better Life for All.
Programme Director, from the onset, I must express our sincere appreciation to the OR Tambo Foundation, the European Union, the Wits School of Governance and the Department of Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation for this roundtable discussion that seeks to strengthen one of the key pillars of the basic education sector - i.e. the assessment regime that affects almost 12 million school learners. These 12 million young people represent the dreams and aspiration of the whole nation.
In this regard, OR Tambo once correctly warned that: "A nation that does not take care of its youth has no future and does not deserve one."
Programme Director, our country, and indeed the world – we are in the grip of the Mandela fever. Yesterday, the world commemorated the seventh anniversary of the Nelson Mandela International Day. The United Nations (UN) officially declared 18 July as Nelson Mandela International Day in November 2009, recognising Mandela's "values and his dedication to the service of humanity" and acknowledging his contribution "to the struggle for democracy internationally and the promotion of a culture of peace throughout the world".
We know that President Mandela valued education more than anything else. Mandela said: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” We now know the effects of his wisdom because only education is considered the key to eliminating gender inequality, to reducing poverty, to creating a sustainable planet, to preventing needless deaths and illness, and to fostering peace.
We are indeed a special generation in that we drink deep from the well of wisdom from such colossal figures such as President Mandela and Comrade OR Tambo.
A body of scientific knowledge acknowledges that assessments in education are an integral part of instruction, as it determines whether or not the goals of education are being met. Assessment affects decisions about grades, placement, advancement, instructional needs, and curriculum. Assessments inspire us to ask these hard questions: "Are we teaching what we think we are teaching?" "Are students learning what they are supposed to be learning?" "Is there a way to teach the subject better, thereby promoting better learning?"
Today's students need to know not only the basic reading and arithmetic skills, but also skills that will allow them to face a world that is continually changing. They must be able to think critically, to analyse, and to make inferences. Changes in the skills base and knowledge our students need require new learning goals; these new learning goals change the relationship between assessment and instruction. Teachers need to take an active role in making decisions about the purpose of assessment and the content that is being assessed.
In theory, that is the purpose of our current regime of assessments. However, the assessments shape and structure have been found wanting in some respects. Some commentators have even pointed towards the need for the complete reengineering of the assessment regime as we know it. As the basic education sector, we are amenable to the idea of regular review of our policies, assessment regime included.
Programme Director, we strongly subscribe to the view that assessments are an integral part of teaching and learning. Assessment is the mirror of teaching and learning. Teachers teach and learners learn, but only assessment can confirm the outcome of learning. The actual standards reached by learners are often embodied and exemplified in the intended policy, what is actually taught, and what is eventually assessed. To further unpack these differences, current assessment discourses differentiate between assessment for learning and assessment of learning strategies.
Assessment for learning is centred on formative and diagnostic feedback. The frequent assessments of learners’ progress to identify learning needs and shape teaching, has in many countries become a prominent issue in education reform. As a sector, we need to strengthen diagnostic assessments and give further support to teachers to enable them to quickly identify and remediate learning gaps in specific content areas. Research practitioners have argued that:
“The best teachers constantly monitor what is happening to students as they set about learning and investigate when things do not proceed as planned or expected. They also enquire about their own practice so they might get better at ensuring that their students learn successfully.” (Demos, 2004).
Assessment of learning strategies is more summative in design and leads to promotion and progression and also helps us report on the system. The requirements of summative assessments are currently outlined in Chapter 4 of our internationally benchmarked Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement (CAPS). Now fully instituted since 2014, CAPS is a high knowledge curriculum. It places a premium on cognitive demands from learners and emphasises subject content and assessment as the centrepiece of curriculum implementation. In line with chapter 4 of the CAPS document examiners have recently utilised a more structured format in determining the cognitive demand of items in question papers, and there is a concerted effort to ensure that our question papers reflect the knowledge and skills required by Higher Education, the world of work and to operate effectively in society. Our learners must develop their analytical and critical thinking skills, problem solving and innovation skills.
Historically, our summative assessments have been designed as public examinations for certification such as the National Senior Certificate or the School Based Examinations that form part of the School Based Assessment of learners in Grades 4 to 11, which are used to establish the promotion of learners into the next grade.
We should dispel the myth that the basic education sector is judged narrowly on the reported outcomes of the NSC Examinations or the Annual National Assessments. In the real world, the performance of any education system is evaluated by using internationally accepted principles such as: Access, Redress, Equity, Efficiency, and Quality.
On a broader level, systemic assessments, such as TIMSS, PIRLS and SACMEQ provide valuable insights on the health of the education system and help us review educational programs undertaken for the purpose of improving learning and development. It is therefore important that we assess right, taking into account valuable lessons learnt from participation both in local and international assessment programmes.
The schooling assessment system is currently effective in certain components but not so effective in others. Yet, the Public Examination system has made steady progress over the years and we are reputed to be comparable to the best system in the world, in terms of our examination administration. We continue to benchmark our question papers with international assessment bodies so as to ensure that our standards are world class.
However, in the case of School Based Assessments (SBA) there is much work to be done and I will elaborate on this later in my address.
Programme Director; let me talk about the politically hot potato - the Annual National Assessments (ANAs). The introduction of the large scale standardised assessments, during the last few years, has made a significant contribution to driving the system in the right direction. The lessons learnt since 2011, continue to influence our teacher development programmes. The ANAs identified unacceptably low levels of learner performance in the Senior Phase. As a result we were able to put in place evidence driven interventions and introduced a battery of reforms. We launched the strategy namely, Framework for Improving Performance in the Senior Phase, featuring the 1+4 Intervention Model. In this interventionist model, we partnered with Sasol-Inzalo to help with teacher training programme.
I have said on several occasions that assessment programmes such as the ANA is not a tool that the sector created to punish and antagonise teachers. We believe that teachers are the heartbeat of a functioning school system. We cannot expect teachers to promote quality learning and teaching alone. Hence our contention that education is “a societal issue” and we are committed to putting forward assessment models that are credible and valuable to the sector. Typical of any major intervention, the rollout of ANA has raised critical issues and questions for both sustenance and enhancement of the initiative. Hence the current review of the ANA.
This Roundtable is broader than just the review of ANA and the discussions today should not be constrained by it. We must also consider noteworthy observations from our international assessment programmes and possible best practices for the School Based Assessments (SBA).
Programme Director; we are alive to the idea that we live in a global village, hence our continued participation in international assessments. These assessments help us as the sector to continuously measure our learner performances against the best in the world. International assessment studies (such as the Trends in Mathematics and Science Study – TIMMS results from 2002 to 2011 focusing on Grade 4 and 8 Mathematics and Science; and the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study – PIRLS results from 2001 to 2011 focusing Grade 4 reading achievements) show that we are improving the educational achievement for learners from poor households. We are looking forward to the release of the TIMMS 2015 results and PIRLS 2016 in November 2016 and 2017, respectively. The preliminary results of the 2013 Southern and Eastern Africa Consortium for Monitoring Education Quality (SACMEQ IV), confirm what has been done in the most courageous and large scale interventions in our sector. The SACMEQ IV results, to be released soon, will show that the Republic of South Africa, for the first time, has reached the 500 centre point – confirming that we are a sector on the rise. This does not infer that we do not have challenges with the current assessment regime. I will draw your attention to some of them.
The educationist Douglas J. Eder cautions that:
“If you don’t know where you are headed, you’ll probably end up someplace else.”
There must be a balanced approach to assessment, and certainly we must avoid assessment overkill or a system that is purely examinations driven. As a sector, we must acknowledge, that there may be in some provinces over testing through a copious number of common examinations that have been recently introduced, especially since the postponement of the ANA. The Department is undertaking a survey of the common tests and examinations conducted in the provinces and emanating from this survey, firm steps will be taken towards establishing a clear protocol for the number, purpose and frequency of testing programmes administered. Assessments must be understood as a strategic intervention hence they must be used with a clear purpose in mind.
Programme Director, the issue of appropriate standards in assessment is not unique to South Africa. Kellaghan (2002) stated that judgments regarding standards involve a degree of uncertainty, and not all individuals would arrive at the same conclusion about the merits of an object or individual. Standards are illusive and in the main are developed by a process of national consensus seeking. The DBE together with the PEDs must continue to establish a common understanding and application of standards across all levels of the system through guidelines on the exemplification of assessment tasks and assessment evidence. This process must be coupled with the training of teachers in the development of assessment tasks and marking, as well as rigorous and extensive quality assurance procedures.
Our bigger challenge lies in the area of School Based Assessments (SBAs) where every teacher is an assessment practitioner. Given the capacity levels of our teachers in the field of assessment, the assessment standards vary from school to school, and from one district to the other. The negative side of this variation in standards is that learners are not provided with an accurate indication of their performance based on the internal school based assessment programme. In many cases it creates a false notion of achievement, until the learner is confronted with an external standardised assessment that confirms the learners’ true performance. Our provincial monitoring and evaluation reports and on-going research suggest that it is essential that we look more closely at how assessment design in school based assessments can be improved. Key SBA challenges that still remain include:
Teacher capacity in the designing of assessment tasks.
Over-dependence on past question papers or provincially/district based tasks.
Lack of robust moderation systems at school, district, provincial and national levels.
Lack of adequate subject advisory support.
Lack of training and capacity building.
School based assessment was designed to assess skills and knowledge that cannot be tested in a formal examination, but our findings are that SBA is dominated by tests and examinations and does not emphasise alternative forms of assessment. Systems for SBA implementation are not standardised, and vary across PEDs. There is a serious shortage of capacity to support, train and assist teachers in the implementation of SBA.
A key challenge for the sector is the role of technology in enabling assessment programmes. The education of the 20th century was dominated by chalk and chalkboards, hardcover texts, and pen and paper tests. The current information-age discourse suggests that’s the education of yesteryear; today there is new type of education that is futuristic and digital. There is an urgent need to transform our education system into 21st century learning environments that provide our learners with the skills they need to succeed. The vision of the 2004 White paper was and still is to transform learning and teaching through Information and Communication Technology (ICTs) and to produce ICT capable learners. The NDP states that: “ICT is seen as an enabler with the potential to speed up delivery, support analysis, build intelligence and create new ways to share information, learn and engage.” The assessment tools and devices we design must be in-sync with this vision and serve to ease administrative workloads of teachers in respect of diagnostic feedback to learners and reporting to parents. We must move with necessary speed towards create enabling ICT environments where teachers and their learners are tech savvy and confident. In our sector plans, ICT is the first priority where Operation Phakisa is being implemented, and the digitisation of assessment tools must be at the forefront of mobilising public-private partnerships.
In our efforts to reposition a new assessment regime to deal with the identified challenges, we must establish clear principles that must be acceptable to all stakeholders. The new assessment regime must focus on assessment designs that are fit for purpose. The purpose of the assessment will determine the instrument design, administration design; and the utilisation of data. Effective data utilisation by teachers must be the primary objective. There should be adequate lag time to be allowed for system remediation. It might be helpful to focus on end of the Phase assessment. International best practice suggests that the assessment data must be analysed within the frame of the contextual factors. An assessment overload must be avoided.
Finally, a national assessment model must address the issue of the purposes and formats of national, standardised assessments. We acknowledge that there are tensions here, in an unequal system, on what might constitute ‘useful’ formats and contents of such assessments, but we are mindful too, of the risks of ongoing maintenance of inequity if we do not have standardised assessment tools for investigating performance across the system. The model must be designed in the context of all other forms of assessment in the GET and FET band so that there is a seamless integration of assessment programmes.
Distinguished Guests, the assessment discourse with respect to the current and proposed assessment regime is both topical and daunting and a wide range of views and contexts could be considered. Nonetheless the discussions of this Roundtable are critical and we have an opportunity to engage and bring to the fore viable solutions for the children of this country. Some of the key points for me are to have structured discussions on:
(a) How will diagnostic assessments be integrated into the current SBA programmes as a key driver of improving teaching and learning?
(b) What are the implications for capacitating the system on diagnostic assessments to improve teaching and learning including office-based staff (DBE, PED, and District) and classroom teachers?
(c) How do we deal with the criticism levelled against the SA education system that we prepare learners for the matric examinations and not for effective learning?
(d) What are some of the key elements that must be incorporated into a model for National Standardised Assessment for South Africa?
(e) What will be the design features of digitising assessment tools and how do we fast track ICT and its role in enabling quality assessment?
In conclusion, Programme Director, the reality of the situation is that we are unable to achieve all our desired targets alone as Government, hence the need for consultation with stakeholders, galvanising public–private sector partnerships, and enhancing a common vision for assessment that is mutually beneficial to all in the sector. But more importantly, if we get assessment tool right, we strengthen the foundations of children’s educational reality and create the necessary space for improving their lives. It is the least that we can do for our future generation of scholars, scientists, teachers, doctors, lawyers and engineers, etc.
I thank you.