Getting the facts right on assessments

Terry Bell
Terry Bell.
Terry Bell

To test or not to test? That is not the question although it is the way the current row about basic education has largely been presented.

Because the five teacher unions — with the SA Democratic Teachers’ Union (Sadtu) usually the only one mentioned — support testing, but are unanimous in their opposition to the government’s unilateral imposition of the annual national assessment (ANA). And not only because it was introduced without consultation.

Educationally, the form of the testing proposed is a disaster in the making. As Basil Manuel, general secretary of the National Professional Teachers Organisation (Naptosa) notes: “The question that has to be asked is whether these tests fulfill the purpose for which they were designed. The short answer is NO.”

The purpose is to diagnose what problems may exist in crucial areas of teaching and learning and to provide suitable remedial action to try to correct these. On Monday. the combined unions that include the Professional Educators (PEU) the SA Teachers’ Union (better known as SAOU) and the National Teachers’ Union (Natu) spelled out their opposition. “The ANA in its current form, is not in the best interests of our learners or for the provision of quality education.”

They point out that the ANA as it exists, is deeply flawed and seems only to provide a system of marks that might contribute to a “league table” of competing schools; that one year of tests does not correlate to the next.

These criticisms were accepted by the department in September when government and the unions agreed to establish a task team to try to iron out the problems highlighted. The team was to report by December, with a possible implementation date in February next year for a system of diagnostic testing and follow-ups.

But, without notification, Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga decided that the tests would go ahead in December. “We couldn’t understand it,” says Maluse Kutumela, president of the PEU.

However, according to critics both within and outside the unions, the decision is an attempt to burnish the image of the Department of Basic Education in the months leading up to the local government elections. This can be achieved because such test regimes put teachers under pressure to produce the best possible results; proving what students seem to know rather than what they actually know

The system encourages teachers to “cheat” by cramming students with soon to be forgotten information that can be regurgitated on the test date. Good, but fundamentally meaningless, scores benefit only the authorities.

It is for this reason that the unions insist: “It is important to highlight the fact that … we are not against assessments as a matter of principle. We want to insist … that the ANA in its current form will not be beneficial to the system and will not contribute in any way to quality education.”

At least the argument that has been put on the agenda is the question of testing rote learning and the role it plays in schools and education generally. As the late American educator John Holt once remarked: “Our tell-em and test-em way of teaching leaves most students increasingly confused, aware that their academic success rests on shaky foundations, and convinced that school is mainly a place where you follow meaningless procedures to get meaningless answers to meaningless questions.”

Local educator and Free State University vice chancellor, Jonathan Jansen puts it even more bluntly, noting that this form of teaching amounts to “the education equivalent of force-feeding an under-nourished patient on junk food.”

“And how do you imagine a Grade 1 child can cope with a ten-page test?” asks Manuel. The idea of testing at this stage also ignores all the research that shows that children learn at different rates and in different ways.

This one size fits all approach on the basis of annual scorecards, puts undue pressure on children, takes away teaching time from teachers and, by establishing competitive testing, especially in the early grades, sets up most children to fail — and to regard themselves as failures.

But most parents and the public at large have been given the impression that testing is good. Any testing. And that the unions are merely being obstructive.

This is untrue and is largely the fault of the media that has, for the most part, simply accepted the official position regarding ANA. It was summed up this week by ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe, when he publicly declared: “I love ANA.”

Is this proof that love is, indeed, blind?

Terry Bell was the founding principal of the primary division of Somafco, the ANC school in exile and co-author of the (long discarded) first ANC primary school curriculum (1980). Views expressed are not necessarily GroundUp’s. This article was originally published on Fin24.

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