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Education: Rethinking the pressure of exams

Schools spend too much time preparing students for exams, says Mark Potterton, who has served as the Chief Operating Officer for Umalusi, the South African examinations board. He makes a case for different forms of academic assessment that better prepare students for the world of work and can help to overcome structural inequalities in the current education system.

COVID-19 has resulted in an unprecedented disruption to education systems worldwide. Despite this, the education authorities in many countries, including South Africa, vow that the “school year has not been lost” and are forging ahead with year-end examinations for students completing their final year of schooling. This has placed untold amounts of stress on students as they race to complete the year successfully.

My argument over the years has been that we still put far too much emphasis on exam results. The National Senior Certificate (NSC) exams are high stakes exams that act as gatekeepers for too many pupils. Very few pupils achieve the required results to pursue higher education or enter the employment market. Passing matric does not necessarily open doors for school leavers. Former Planning Minister Trevor Manuel observed that it takes about seven years for the average Black female matriculant to find a job after completing school!

Very few pupils achieve the required results to pursue higher education or enter the employment market.

A lot of teaching time is lost to exams. In Matric, there are three sets of exams. This is three months of lost teaching time, forcing teachers to race through the curriculum and teach after hours to cover all the content.

Exams also create anxiety for students. Every morning, on my way to school I pass a huge billboard advertising over-the-counter medication to help pupils relax and concentrate better. While most pupils seem to navigate this stressful time without too much difficulty, for some pupils the stress is just too much, and the consequences are sometimes deadly.

Primary school children in South Africa are not free from exam tyranny either. The Annual National Assessments have introduced young children to standardized multiple-choice tests to assess literacy and numeracy. Some argue that an overemphasis on standardized testing hurts the quality of teaching and that the current system of accountability, which uses the same tests to measure trends in achievement and ranks schools, necessarily reduces teaching to test success.

Exams do not produce the skills employers seek

South Africa’s education reforms since the advent of democracy introduced a variety of assessment methods, including coursework, projects, group work and other activities. Despite this, the written examination has still not been dislodged from its pedestal, and its weight remains far too great among the array of other possible assessment strategies. The current system is doggedly focused on the NSC and the outcomes of these exams.

The purpose of these examinations needs to be questioned, especially when employers regularly say that the education system does not provide the skills they are looking for in would-be employees, such as strong writing and presentation skills. They recommend that pupils should be given more opportunity to make oral presentations and to write in different styles for different audiences. Employers want workers who can think critically and solve problems.

Employers regularly say that the education system does not provide the skills they are looking for in would-be employees.

A case in point is that when former British Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone took his final exams at university in 1831, oral examinations formed a central part of final degree results. It wasn’t only his memory that was put to the test, but his ability to think quickly, to make a case, and to demonstrate his capabilities as a lawyer.

I am unsure of where we are heading with education in South Africa. It appears that with all the pressure placed on the NSC we are going in the worst direction of the high-achieving countries like Singapore and South Korea.

In 2013, a reporter investigated what he called Gangnam style tuition in Korea where parents spend over $30 billion a year on private tuition to help their children achieve better in high-stakes college-entrance exams. The Korean government has since been forced to bring in a 10 pm curfew on ‘hagwon’ (Korean for ‘private-learning institutes’) to allow children to get to bed earlier. ‘Schooling is not stressful’ said one pupil. ‘It is the tuition homework that is very stressful’. This pupil only got to bed around midnight on weekdays! Some ‘hagwon’ owners operate longer hours on weekends to circumvent the curfew. They also give pupils more homework or make use of online learning.

Beyond testing to addressing educational inequality

What has become clear for me is that national tests are better at measuring socioeconomic status than academic success. Research on schooling and class has shown that wealthier pupils have parents who have more time to spend accompanying their children’s academic progress and have more money to pay for additional curriculum support. Pupils from wealthy families generally have better health and more suitable housing than their lower-income friends. These factors all lead to higher achievement.

Only about 26 percent of students who write the NSC go onto to pursue university studies.

Statistics South Africa

Social inequality and employment readiness of poor students cannot be resolved with an exam. Exams are designed to benchmark students who will go on to higher education. A 2017 Statistics South Africa study showed that only about 26 percent of students who write the NSC go onto to pursue university studies. The study concluded that “in South Africa, poor readiness for post-school education combined with structural factors such as availability of finances, has an impact on access to post-secondary education.”

There are always children who manage to succeed despite the difficult circumstances that they find themselves in, but perhaps a great deal of unnecessary stress can be eliminated by preparing students for more than exams and reforming the education system, so that it can better overcome existing structural inequalities.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.