The Class of 2020 began their Matric exams on 5 November. This year’s Matrics have weathered a pandemic, disrupted schooling, and for many, the emotional trauma of having lost loved ones. Many of their parents lost their jobs and some homes were hubs of domestic abuse and other violence. Mark Potterton asks whether, in this context, Matric exams are a fair way to assess the students’ mastery of their schoolwork and readiness for further education or employment.
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a major disruption to education around the globe. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) reported that at the start of April, nine out of 10 of the world’s children were out of school.
The purpose of these school closures was to prevent further transmission of COVID-19 through isolation and physical distancing. The challenge was to ensure minimal impact on children’s learning.
In many countries like South Africa, schooling has resumed with a combination of virtual and in-person classes. In other places, Uganda for example, only final year students who are writing school leaver exams have returned to school. The rest remain at home. We have yet to see the educational and psychological effects that the ongoing pandemic-related disruption to teaching and learning will have on the world’s children. Examinations will probably be the first tell-tale sign of the educational impact of the pandemic.
In South Africa, our Matrics have started writing their final exams. A large percentage of Matric learners who had little or no access to distance learning lost nearly four months of schooling. A variety catch-up programmes were introduced and the Minister of Basic Education commandeered television stations to help mitigate the loss of teaching time. In August, however, the Minister said that the Matric exams would remain unchanged because they had been set 18 months previously and had already been printed.
The overriding question is whether these exams can be fair. We know from years of research that poverty is one of the most significant factors that negatively affects student results. Language competence, the quality of learning resources and teaching or lack thereof also play an important role in determining student success. The educational level of parents further prevents many from assisting their children with learning activities in the absence of a formal educational environment. Learners may also find it difficult to cope with exam stress during what has been a very abnormal year.
Poverty, trauma hampers ability to catch up on learning
Studies have shown that any massive instability in an education system can have a huge impact. The disruption of schooling by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005 provides some clues as to what the effect of COVID-19 might be. Researchers at Tulane University tracked children when they returned to New Orleans and found that it took two years for them to completely catch up with their schoolwork.
They also argued that it is likely that the negative effect was worse for low income and African American children who did not have the same support structures as their peers with stronger financial and educational support structures. The emotional trauma of the hurricane further slowed the students’ progress.
We can see how these findings could very easily describe the South African context. It would have been almost impossible for students in impoverished communities to access online learning materials, and in many cases, even television-based lessons were impractical. Hunger, driven by poverty and the termination of school feeding programs, makes it even harder for children to concentrate on educational activities. High levels of domestic violence and crime in many of the students’ communities would almost certainly add emotional trauma that could further hamper learning activities.
The fairness of standardized testing
Isabel Nisbet and Stuart Shaw, two UK-based experts on school assessments recently published a book called Is Assessment Fair? The book examines the fairness of standardised in an educational context in which students come from diverse intellectual traditions and ways of thinking.
There is a growing awareness that these standardised tests say less about the student’s ability and more about the distribution of resources to schools based on the notion of meritocracy. Here in South Africa, the Annual National Assessments were dumped precisely because of public pressure around the perceived unfairness of these tests.
The core value of respect for the dignity and well-being of the students being assessed must underpin fair and equitable assessment practices. In the context of an academic year disrupted by COVID-19, an important dimension of respect for students is to ensure that weightings of the assessment activities are proportionate to the emphasis of the curriculum. Such an assessment should also consider that many learners did not have access to their learning materials or the guidance to adequately track their progress.
A group of Canadian assessment experts developed a set of principles to ensure fair assessments that can very easily be applied to the South African context. Firstly, examiners must strive to understand and address the personal impact of assessment practices on individual students and their families. Secondly, assessments must accommodate the ability, social, cultural and linguistic background of every student. Thirdly, all members of school communities must challenge the complacency associated with accepting indefensible and illogical assessment practices. Fourthly, the frequency, intensity and intrusiveness of assessments must not overwhelm for students and their families. Finally, assessments must not be confused as a mechanism to punish inappropriate student behaviour or reward desired behaviour.
The 2020 Matric exams will reveal how school closures and disruption have impacted on learning this year – and in years to come. The hope is that despite the Department of Education’s refusal to reset this year’s Matric examinations, it will take into account the impact that poverty and the lack of access to a conducive learning environment has had on the majority of the country’s school leavers.
Above all, the Matric examination should not be the sole factor in determining whether the Class of 2020 is able to progress to further education and training opportunities, or whether they will become the secondary casualties of the COVID-19 pandemic who are condemned to years of unemployment and inaccessible educational opportunities.