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The Wise men, shepherds and the Judge: the story of the Class of 2020

Controversy has raged over two leaked Matric exams. The Department of Education called for a rewrite, but the High Court have ruled against this. Mark Potterton agrees with the decision but questions the justice of this year’s Matric examination, when the country’s most disadvantaged students lost weeks of schooling.

Hundreds of thousands waited with bated breath for the decision of High Court about whether to rewrite the Mathematics 2 paper and the Physical Science paper.

The education authorities received information about the leaks just before each paper was to be written. These papers were written by 339 000 and 282 000 pupils respectively and the Department of Basic Education decided that they needed to be rewritten.  

Judge Norman Davis dismissed the case with costs, deciding that it was unlawful to force the students to rewrite the papers. He also instructed the Department of Basic Education and the National Examination Irregularities Committee to take the necessary steps to mark the scripts.

The judge concluded that a very small percentage of pupils had access to the two leaked papers and that the argument by the shepherds (Umalusi – the quality assurance body in the Department of Education)) that the leak had “irrevocably damaged the integrity” of the papers was premature.  The judge was not convinced that there had been a ‘substantial irregularity’ that justified Umalusi’s decision not to certify the examination.

it is unjustifiable to make “hundreds of thousands of innocent learners” rewrite the paper.

The judge argued that the leak only reached a miniscule 0,06% of the 339 000 Mathematics pupils who wrote the paper and that it was unjust to make everyone rewrite. In the case of the Science paper the percentage was even lower, making it unjustifiable to make “hundreds of thousands of innocent learners” rewrite the paper.

Umalusi is highly credible organisation, with substantive policies and procedures in place and years of experience. They also engage the services of the wisest men and women in the country to apply their statistics to these high-stake exams. Their big concern is that the leak on social media was more extensive than the judge may have thought and are fearful that this may comprise the entire exam.

From a sheep’s-point-of-view I would argue that the judge was right. The shepherds were far too hasty. They should have marked the exams promptly and examined the results of the offending sheep before subjecting the entire flock to a rewrite. The wise men know that there are many ways to establish whether the candidates cheated.

The real argument should not be whether the leaked examination papers comprised the credibility of the 2020 Matric qualification. The real question is whether the 2020 Matric qualification is an accurate reflection of the year that has been.

Earlier this year, I argued that these exams can hardly be fair considering the disruptive year pupils have had. My greatest concern is that the poorest students would be the most negatively affected by the loss of instruction time. Research has shown that language competence, the quality of learning resources and teaching or lack thereof also play an important role in determining student success.

My greatest concern is that the poorest students would be the most negatively affected by the loss of instruction time.

The educational level of parents further prevents many from assisting their children with learning activities in the absence of a formal educational environment. Additional trauma in their home environment, combined with what has been a very abnormal year, further hampers pupils’ ability to cope with exam stress. On this count, it appears that the judge was particularly mindful of this.

These contested Matric exams will reveal how school closures and disruption have impacted on learning this year – and perhaps for years to come. Although it is too late now to do very much about it now, the experience of this year should make educators stop to think about the fairness of making the Matric examination the sole factor in determining whether the Class of 2020 is able to progress to further education and training opportunities.

Or will they become the secondary casualties of the COVID-19 pandemic who are condemned to years of unemployment and inaccessible educational opportunities?

* 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.

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