National Senior Certificate standards: Basic Education & Higher Education Departments, Umalusi, Higher Education SA; Children's Rights Project on education for disabled

Basic Education

24 April 2012
Chairperson: Ms H Malgas (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

The joint meeting of the Basic and Higher Education Portfolio Committees addressed a number of issues around quality and standards in education, as well as giving an opportunity to the Children’s Rights Project, based at University of Western Cape, to make submissions on education for the disabled, on behalf of the national Campaign on Rights to Education with Disabilities. The Children’s Rights Project (CRP) observed that the Annual Performance Plan of the Department of Basic Education (DBE) failed to adequately address education for children with disabilities, transport challenges, special schools, or the need to have inclusive educational policies. Particular weaknesses were highlighted in the Curriculum Policy Support and Monitoring Programme and the Teachers Education and Human Resource Programme, and problems with accountability were also highlighted, noting that there was no incentive for principals to address the particular needs of individuals, since their performance was assessed on pass results. Despite some achievements in class sizes, more had to be done. Other issues raised included the numbers of children out of school, the high percentage of learners with disabilities and the low percentage of learners in their age-appropriate grades.

The Department of Higher Education outlined some problematic issues in higher education, focusing on the barriers to learners wishing to enter higher education, directly from basic education. The use of the benchmark test by universities was described not as a way of precluding students, but was rather used as a way to deal with some of the barriers, as it helped assess student’s strengths and weaknesses. These barriers were said to include the combination of subject choices; performance in Maths and Science and language proficiency, whilst there were also barriers in relation to career guidance, student expectations, students’ ability to make the transition to individual and group study at universities, rather than relying on rote learning, and their social skills. Another presentation outlined the barriers facing students who were moving to the Further Education and Training (FET) College environment, noting that perceptions around the opportunities presented by FET had to be corrected, and it had to be understood that a vocational or occupational pathway would still involve study, that a certain standard was still required, that a diploma course was not inferior to a degree course, that career guidance was equally important, and that emotional and academic maturity was required.

The Department of Basic Education outlined what it was doing to try to ensure that the national Senior Certificate (NSC) produced learners with the required skills that would be required for those learners to access higher education. The quality and standards of the NSC, as well as the processes, were outlined, as well as the qualification design and structure, and comparisons with the qualifications of the past. It was noted that steps were put in place to deal with curriculum challenges. There was an explanation of the examination and assessment process, and the benchmarking process of the papers, including benchmarking against international standards, and the strengths and weaknesses identified from this. The marking system and how this contributed to quality and standards was also discussed. Particular comment was made upon maths, science, language skills and Life Orientation, the latter being a unique component. Further assessment methods had been developed by Umalusi and were to be implemented in 2012.
Umalusi, the national Quality Control Council, noted that its responsibility lay in ensuring that most people achieved passes and it examined the criticisms levied against the NSC, and the misperceptions that an increase in the pass rate implied a drop in standards. It was noted that much of the criticism was uninformed.

Members raised concern over the five year period required for stabilisation of new qualifications, as outlined for the NSC, and asked questions about the indicators to be used, what might change and how this would be assessed. They noted that many students simply did not appear to be ready for higher education and struggled even to cope at school level. Not enough had been outlined as to how the problems would be addressed. The role of career guidance in basic education was questioned, as well as questions raised as to how the drop out rate would be tackled. Members felt that, too often, departments and entities rushed to blame each other or to exonerate themselves of responsibility for the problems, and this was not helpful. Members asked for more details on Maths Literacy, the barriers to entrance into higher education and challenged the assertions about the purpose of the university tests, after which it was decided that a separate session was needed to deal with these issues. Concerns were raised that the examinations were possibly not the best way to assess students’ ability, and the meaning of “quality” in education, if many students lacked functional literacy and numeracy skills.

Meeting report

He noted that the Children’s Rights Project (CRP) would focus on the Annual Performance Plan (APP) of the DBE and examine how that assisted education for children with disabilities. In general, this APP did not address special schools, and it specifically did not address scholar transport for the disabled, although scholar transport was a strategic priority for 2012/2013. Lack of transport would pose a huge barrier for children with disabilities, who were unable to easily access public transport, and private transport was quite expensive. CRP noted the remark by the Deputy Minister of Basic Education, Hon Enver Surty, about the importance of promoting inclusive education and ensuring policies to address this issue.

Programme 1: Curriculum Policy, Support and Monitoring, was referred to on page 50 of the APP, and this addressed plans for screening, identification, assessment and support (SIAS) of children with barriers to learning. The SIAS policy had been in place since 2008 and part of it was currently being revived. DBE also made reference to a target of training 100 schools nationally on SIAS, but CRC thought this plan was unrealistic, in view of the fact that the Inclusive Education Directorate of the DBE had elsewhere stated that only one teacher for each school would be trained in SIAS.

In respect of Programme 2: Teacher Education Human Resources, CRP was very concerned about principals’ contracts. Although the principals should be held accountable, their performance should not be measured only in terms of academic achievements, as provision of support, and ability to meet individual needs were also very important. Without these being specifically mentioned, there would be no incentive to cater to children who required extra support.

CRP pointed out that the programmes for Planning Information and Assessment failed to set out any action plans to address the problem of oversized classes and children with disabilities. Other programmes that had to be addressed included out-of-school children, the high percentage of learners with disabilities, and the low percentage of learners in age-appropriate grades.

Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) perspectives
Dr Diane Parker, Acting Director General, Department of Higher Education and Training, welcomed this meeting as a forum to deal with problematic issues, and said that she would attempt to cover a number of issues raised previously.

From the university point of view, there were barriers to entrance into higher education by students emerging from the Basic Education systems. The benchmarking tests that were being implemented by universities were not necessarily used as an admission criteria, because the National Senior Certificate (NSC) remained the general admission criteria. The benchmark tests were, instead, used to identify the strengths and weakness of the learners coming into the system, to enable the universities to support new students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds who had problems with making the transition to the university academic environment. The benchmark test was used to identify the areas of concern. From the academic preparation standpoint, issues confronting students included subject choices, performance in Maths and Science, the fact that Maths Literacy at NSC was not appropriate for qualifications in Engineering, Natural Science, and the Health Sciences, the overall academic performance in relation to the Admission Point Score (APS) for entrance, discipline-related issues, general knowledge and academic study and language proficiency.

Other barriers arose from lack of proper career guidance, life skills orientation and preparation of learners to cope with further studies and life at University. There were misperceptions about the “matric endorsement” for Bachelor and Diploma studies, misperceptions about the relative weight and value of degrees and diplomas, difficulties around conflict resolution, and the fact that often students were unable to work independently, or work effectively in groups and to do research rather than rote learning.

Ms Eugenie Rabie, Chief Operations Officer, Department of Higher Education and Training, then dealt with the position of the Further Education and Training Colleges (FET).  A correct motivation for applying to the FET College environment was based on the need to pursue a vocational or occupational pathway, based on informed choices through career, parental, professional or other guidance. Students could also use this route to undertake further learning, if they were excluded from schools because of their age, or to improve their opportunities for employment, or seek an opportunity outside the schooling system to pursue learning for personal interest or development.

In respect of the overarching expectations and pre-requisites for the FET colleges, a number of factors were important. The transition from school into the FET college system had to be preceded by appropriate career guidance and awareness of the college  learning environment, and the FET Colleges should be seen as an active choice, not a last resort. It was necessary to confirm foundational literacy and numeracy at either grade 9 or grade 12 equivalent, depending on the point of entry, and to show evidence that the learner could accept responsibility for his/her own learning, as well as an awareness that learning in the Vocational Education (VCET) environment also involved reading, writing, analysing and the application of cognate skills to meet current demands, and not only mechanical or manual manipulations.

Ideally,  the learner should have successfully completed at least grade 9, and show emotional maturity because the FET College learning environment was less rigorous in regard to attire, attendance and discipline than a school. There should be some achievement shown in school reports on prior grades, although it was recognised that there was not always a correlation between achievement levels, in the report, and the learner’s demonstrable competence. Generally, achievements of over 60% would provide a good prognosis for future success.

Department of Basic Education presentation on National Senior Certificate and preparation of learners for higher education
Dr Rufus Poliah, Chief Director: Examinations and Matric, Department of Basic Education, stated that the fundamental issue was whether DBE was producing learners with the required skills to enable them transition to higher learning, as well as to what extent the DBE was preparing learners for expectations of higher education. Criticisms had been levied against DBE in regards to the standard and quality of the National Senior Certificate (NSC), and questions had been raised in the media about the validity of the NSC as a predictor of student performance in higher education.

Because the discussion was about “standards” he said it was important to note that a “standard” was a measurement of what was adequate, or a socially or practically described level of performance. An academic article of 2002 had stated that judgments regarding standards involved a degree of uncertainty, and not all individuals would arrive at the same conclusion about the merits of an object or individual. Standards were thus elusive, and generally were developed by a process of seeking national consensus. In order to understand the standard of the NSC, it was necessary to understand its four critical components of qualification design, curriculum, examination and assessment, and learner outputs.

The qualification design was that the NSC was a 130-credit certificate, at Level 4 on the National Qualifications Framework (NQF). It was intended was to enrich the learner with a combination of learning outcomes that would provide applied competence and a basis for further learning, as well as provide a benefit to society and the economy (WOW), and should be internationally comparable with other assessments. The NSC qualification was based on high levels of knowledge and skills. The learning outcomes were subject-specific, and the knowledge, skills and values to be acquired by the end of Grade 12 were set out. The outcomes were grade specific. The NSC qualification also established high expectations of what all South Africans could achieve, and empowered those who were previously disadvantaged to acquire knowledge and skills. Learning fields provided wide and diverse opportunities for school leavers, including areas of  sciences, technology, mathematics, agriculture, business, human and social studies, services, languages and arts.

The NSC was structured around an internal and external assessment in each of seven subjects. One of the languages should be the home language, and another was required at first additional level, mathematics or Maths Literacy was required, as well as Life Orientation and three other subjects from an approved list. In order to obtain an NSC, the learner must achieve 40% in three subjects, one of which must be an official and home language, and 30% in three subjects. If a subject was failed, a school based assessment should be submitted. Condonation in one subject could be given, if the candidate required only 2% to pass at the 30% or 40% level. In addition to the NSC requirements, a learner seeking admission to higher education was required to satisfy the requirements in terms of the language and teaching at 30%, and to have four subjects at a designated 50%.

He compared the NSC with the former Senior Certificate (SC), which had required six subjects to be passed, whilst NSC had compulsory passes required in Mathematics or Maths Literacy and Life Orientation. Further comparisons were provided about the pass rates for each of the SC and NSC (see attached presentation for full details) All subjects offered for the NSC were at one level, which was equivalent to the old SC Higher Grade.

Several steps were initiated to address Curriculum challenges. Teacher Development programmes targeted teachers in under-performing schools. Support material was developed, especially in the form of newspaper supplements, self-study guides, worksheets, exemplar papers and radio broadcast lessons. Subject support strategies, such as subject workshops, were focusing on content gaps. There were resource materials on Thusong portal and DBE website. There were also Dinaledi interventions for maths and science.

In relation to examinations and assessment a number of issues were considered in setting question papers. There was a focus on setting high quality and error-free question papers that would accurately reflect and assess students’ learning, in line with curriculum goals, that would comply with policy and be of an appropriate standard. These were intended to generate valid and accurate data on learner performance, and influence better practice by providing accurate and useful feedback to learning and teaching. It was also important to maintain consistency in the standard and quality of the papers from year to year, across papers and subjects.

He then moved on to deal with national and international benchmarking of question papers. In 2002, DBE had
benchmarked the Senior Certificate (SC) question papers against the Scottish Qualification Authority, and had used this to improve the quality. In 2007, the NSC subjects were benchmarked against the Scottish Qualification Authority, Cambridge International Examinations, and Board of Studies in New South Wales, Australia. In 2011 the DBE benchmarked seven NSC subjects against local processes.

The international benchmarking concluded that the
question papers were well designed by international standards, and were correctly assessing knowledge, as well as adequately measuring learning outcomes and assessment standards articulated in the National Curriculum Statement and the Subject Assessment Guidelines. They were also felt to assess analytical, application and evaluative skills, and some did reflect latest developments in their area. The skills that were assessed by the curriculum were said to be internationally comparable, and prepared learners appropriately for the global community. Most subjects were said to assess critical thinking and problem solving skills.

However, weaknesses included the fact that question papers were too long and tended to cover almost the entire syllabus content, which hindered in-depth testing. It was difficult to correlate mark allocations and time allocations to items, whilst the multiple-choice questions were too simply and merely required recall from candidates.

Good quality and standards were observed, through appointment of competent markers, standardisation of marking guidelines at a national meeting prior to marking, standardisation of the application of the marking guideline through training, and stringent moderation processes conducted by DBE, Umalusi and Provincial Departments of Education (PED). The re-mark process was used for reviews of markers and training.

Life Orientation (LO) focused on life skills, civic responsibilities, values, morals and health, and since the performance in this was affected by skills developed from birth, it could not be compared to other academic subjects. However, common assessment tasks were developed and approved by Umalusi for implementation in 2012.

There were improved pass rates, improved maths and science results, as  well as improved numbers of those obtaining admission to university. Evaluations had shown that it could take up to five years before a new qualification “settled”, and
any review and subsequent policy change had to be based on data over this period. Only preliminary evaluations were possible now, although some claims had already been made about the validity of the NSC, and Higher Education South Africa (HESA) was experimenting with setting a National Benchmarking Test (NBT).

A recent study by Wits University indicated that the NSC examination results were a fair predictor of the likelihood of success of students in their first year of study. This contrasted with the National Benchmark Test (NBT) results by HESA. In many courses, NBT were shown to be a poorer predictor of performance than the NSC results. Wits University was not yet convinced that the NBT assisted in improving admission decisions, and this university chose not to use the NBT as a requirement for all admissions in 2011. The Wits study also indicated that those writing NSC arrived at university with differing sets of competencies, and performed in line with predecessors in the reading intensive, group-work and project-learning courses, but struggled in maths and science courses. A study of 2009 intake students (see attached presentation for full details) noted that they were relatively better prepared on the personal side, but were weaker on content, although they had improved over a semester.

Umalusi briefing on the NSC
Mr Vijayen Naidoo, Senior Manager: Quality Assurance, Umalusi, noted that Umalusi was the Quality Council (QC) for education. In terms of section 27(h) of the National Qualifications Framework Act (NQF Act) it must
develop and implement policy and criteria for assessment for qualifications on its sub-framework. The Umalusi model for setting standards was based on qualifications and curriculum, evaluation and accreditation, and quality assurance of assessment.

He noted that the
underlying philosophy behind the NCS was to ensure that most people achieved a pass. The standards for the NSC were captured in the National Curriculum Statement (NCS) and Subject Assessment Guidelines (SAG) and Umalusi had to ensure that they were maintained.

Questions were raised on the NSC, based on the points that more learners
were passing at lower levels, the pass mark was at 30 % and 40%, qualifying candidates had apparently not displayed the requisite knowledge and skills, Maths and Language competencies continued to be weak, and there were concerns about the standardisation process. The immediate critical issues were the perceived gap between school and higher education requirements, as well as the standards of assessment.

Mr Naidoo said that there had been
a steady increase, over the last decade, in the number of learners who enrolled for and wrote the final examinations, except in 2010 and 2011. Concerns on quality had sparked debate, although much of this was uninformed. The South African public used the matric results as the main indicators of quality of the education system, so it was understandable that they had concerns about what the results of this, relatively new, qualification implied about the current state of education. It was important, however, to interrogate some of the assumptions. Firstly, there was a perception that “more passes meant worse standards” and that a higher pass rate resulted from lowering standards or upward adjustment of marks. Another assumption was that NCS was of a lower standard than the previous curriculum. However, Umalusi’s research into standards in fact confirmed that in most cases the NCS presented a greater cognitive challenge to learners, and represented more modern, updated and demanding versions of previous subjects.

Ms A Lovemore (DA) referred to the DBE’s remark that a new qualification took five years to stabilise, and asked what this meant, and what might change during the stabilisation period. She also asked what indicators were being looked at to see if the NSC indeed required reviewing.

Dr A Lotriet (DA) stated that the presentation had indicated that standards of education were high, but the reality was that students were not ready for university, and could not cope at school. She had not heard exactly where these problems arose, and what could be done to improve the situation. Her experience as a lecturer, over 25 years, had been that many students could not cope, and she asked why this was so.

Dr Lotriet further asked, in relation to basic education, the extent to which proper career guidance featured in the basic education curriculum, noting that there were quite a number of problems in that regard.

Mr L Bosman (DA) observed that there was a huge drop out of students at school level, particularly apparently for grades 9 to 12. Statistics showed that there were about one million people in the age group 18 to 24 who had not completed their schooling, and were without any further training and jobs. He asked what had been done to rectify the situation.

Ms A Mashishi (ANC) asked when the various bodies in the education field would stop shifting the blame to each other.

Ms Mashishi asked when a learner was eligible to study Maths Literacy. 

Ms Mashishi further asked what was been done to confront the problems which constituted barriers for entrance into higher education.

Mr K Dikobo (AZAPO) also made reference to “the blame game”, although he observed that at least this had not happened at this meeting, but the various institutions were trying to acquit themselves of any fault, which in fact amounted to much the same.

Mr Dikobo referred to the presentation by the DBE and stated that there was no point in comparing the NSC to the SC, since the latter no longer existed.

Mr Dikobo pointed out that there were issues with the reliability and credibility of academic qualifications, which could not be denied by the DHET. The core question was why students were performing below expectation in higher education. He was at a loss as to how the matter could be handled without accusations of incompetence being raised.

Mr C Moni (ANC) was interested to knowing how a 15 year old person could study “independently” or come to “independent conclusions”, and wondered if examinations were really an accurate measurement of a student’s capability.

Mr A Mpontshane (IFP) referred to the statement that the benchmark tests administered by the universities were not meant for entrance purposes, which he questioned. He noted that one student he knew of had a “university admission” at matric, but was denied entrance because she had been one point short of the mark set by the university.

Ms N Gina (ANC) also stated that if indeed the tests were not used by the universities for admission purposes, there would be no complaints. This, however, was not the position and it was learners from poor background who could not afford the resources to reach the benchmarking standards who were directly affected. Learners had to pay to write the benchmark tests, which was a financial strain. This issue should be  debated at another meeting, in order to resolve it.

Mr Z Makhubele (ANC) stated that quality had no meaning if, at the end of the day, people could not read and write adequately. He commented that there could be no claim by the Departments of Education that everything was in order, if learners had no functional literacy and numeracy. In one case, learners were taught by a teacher who had no foundation in maths; this signified a huge disservice to quality education.

Dr Poliah, DBE, admitted that a lot still had to be done by both departments, particularly in maths and science, as it was a daily reality that there were difficulties in these areas. He also admitted that comparison between the performance over the years and the current performance by the two Departments of Education still showed that there was much to be done. The major challenges for basic education, around improving learner outcomes, had to do with curriculum coverage. Another issue was that although teachers were at work, they were not teaching for a minimum of seven hours a day. Accountability instruments were being developed to monitor the situation, and try to improve teaching time.

Ms Parker, DHET, admitted that there was a need to identify the actual problems and find ways of resolving them. She agreed with the need to have proper discussion on the issue of the national benchmark test because the issue had generated a lot of debate. She reiterated her earlier position that, generally, universities did not intend to use the test as an entrance requirement, but instead used it to identify issues, although she conceded that some universities may be using the test for other purposes. She clarified that the national benchmark test was not the same thing as the point score, which was used to identify who would be admitted or not to the university.

Dr Mafu Racometsi, Chief Executive Officer, Umalusi, stated that one worrying issue was the educational value of interventions, such as Winter Schools that took place during the winter holiday breaks. The children were thus taught continuously, and seemed to benefit more from the daily interactions with the teachers. He said that teachers needed to devise ways for greater student benefit.

Dr Rakometsi stated, in respect of the pass rate, that it was not so important for South Africa to follow what other countries were doing, but instead a greater focus should be placed on what was best for South Africa, given its individual context.

Dr Rakometsi, in response to questions about the stability period for new qualifications, noted that teachers had to be given some time to get used to the new curriculum before its success could be assessed and the curriculum revised. It was also not possible to arrive at any meaningful conclusions on the levels within one or two years, as it was important to look at trends over the years, in relation to the examination papers. Universities could not give proper feedback, either, on what they had observed over only one or two years.

The Chairperson urged both departments and other institutions to discuss between themselves how the challenges to learners could be confronted and dealt with. The Committee regarded the future of learners as of paramount importance. The Committee would consider all the documents presented at the briefing as well as the comments, and would another meeting shortly, to discuss the issues further.

The meeting was adjourned.


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