News agency, Cape Town, South Africa
Saturday February 16th 2019

Parliamentary committee discusses shock test results on university students

Patrick Burnett

Whether South Africa’s school system was capable of producing students able to cope with tertiary studies came under intense scrutiny at a parliamentary committee meeting on basic education on Wednesday.

Recent National Benchmark Test Project (NBTP) results, commissioned by Higher Education SA (Hesa), showed a disturbing gap between National Senior Certificate (NSC) results and NBTP results that tested first-year students in February, thus raising questions about how well the school system was preparing students for life after school.

Called to discuss these concerns, yesterday’s meeting saw a high-powered Department of Basic Education delegation, which had come prepared to mount a “vigorous defence”, squaring up to principal NBTP investigator Nan Yeld, who is the dean of higher education development at the University of Cape Town.

But although the department defended the NSC, the NBTP tests also faced scrutiny, with concerns that they could be used by tertiary institutions as a mechanism to exclude rather than support students.

The NBTP tests, which involved 300 academics and tested 13,000 students at seven universities, found low levels of quantitative literacy, suggesting that the curriculum had a long way to go before it realised its aims, said the authors, but also requiring a “fundamental mind-shift” from institutions to deal with student needs.

Very few students obtained proficiency in mathematics, which the study authors concluded provided support for doubts about the large number of students achieving over 70% in NSC examinations.

Briefing the committee, Yeld said the area of quantitative literacy showed a “real problem”, with 3,055 students – or 25% – out of 12,182 showing basic levels.
What had “really alarmed” people, she said, was in the mathematics test, which showed only 737 – or 7% – out of 9,771 students showing proficient levels.

Yeld said one interpretation was that the NSC examination was set at too low a level while another was that NBTP tests in mathematics were “unrealistically difficult”.
A third explanation was that the new curriculum statement for mathematics was not being taught in its entirety in schools.

Yeld stressed however that none of the results indicated that students could not read or write; rather that these students were in need of support.

But committee chair Fatima Chohan raised concerns about whether the tests, which will continue in September, December and January, would be used as a “gate-keeping mechanism” to keep students away.

Yeld responded that the tests were intended to identify students who needed support, but Chohan again raised the concern later: “The gatekeeping issue worries me a great deal. If we are saying matric maths is of a sufficiently high standard, then what is it that motivates a university to say over and above that we want to test if you are really proficient?”

But Yeld defended the tests, arguing that higher education had wanted to develop a lens through which to see results.

Hindle acknowledged that there was a high degree of “scatter” in the difference between the NSC and NBTP results, but said based on the presentation the situation was “rather different” from what had been in the public domain.

“We thought we were coming here to mount a vigorous defence. What has been in the public domain has been very damaging.”

It emerged during the meeting that the NBTP tests were distinct from reported comments attributed to Higher Education SA chairman Theuns Eloff that most of the country’s first-year university students could not adequately read, write or spell, with the committee hearing that these comments had apparently not been based on the NBTP tests.

Hindle said the department was engaged in a “highly-structured” engagement with Hesa, while chief director of examinations Nkosi Sishi defended exam quality, arguing they were comparable to international standards.

He said while the NBPT results focused attention on the NSC’s mathematics paper three, one paper out of three should not be used to cast doubt on the examination system as a whole. – West Cape News

Tags: hesa, hindle, matric, nbtp, nsc, UCT, yeld

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