“I have spread my dreams under your feet; Tread softly, because you tread on my dreams”
W. B. Yeats (in Rowntree 1987:xiii)
BACKGROUND TO THE STUDY
y intention in undertaking this research is to investigate differences in assessment between two systems of education – to see if, and how, assessment policies have changed, and the effects that
these changes have had, and could have, on the learning population. In doing so, I soon became aware of the reality that the South African understanding of the term educational assessment is driven and informed by the final Grade 12 (Matriculation) Senior Certificate examinations that are written in October / November of each year. When one takes into account the nature of such examinations – high- stakes, once-off, summative assessments that rank and certify learners – it becomes clear that the manner in which learning in schools takes place has to be focused on them. Or does it? What is assessment? What are the various types of assessment? What are the aims of assessment? And, more importantly: what are the links between assessment and real learning?
The year 2006 heralded the official beginning of the Further Education and Training (FET) band of education at Grade 10 level, within the new National Curriculum Statement (NCS). This year (2008) will see the first cohort of learners who will write the ‘new’ National Senior Certificate (NSC) examinations informed by the NCS. How will the NCS impact on learners, teachers, schools and the system of education as a whole? How is it different to past policy and does it represent an improvement on the past? More importantly, will the NCS encourage schools to approach assessment – and hence learning and teaching – in a different manner? These are some of the critical questions that this study will attempt to address.
In undertaking the research for this study, the following quotation, by Dylan Wiliam (2006:online), struck me as being critical to the whole concept of education, and hence assessment:
[There is an] … old joke about schools being places where children go to watch teachers work. And it’s becoming worse and worse because we’re under more and more pressure to do more. The hard thing is to say you get more learning by getting the students to do more of the work. You can’t do anybody else’s learning for them. We believe that in our heads, but we don’t believe it in our hearts because, when the pressure is on, we revert to telling. At the time, it seems the right thing to do but we know it isn’t.
The implications of Wiliam’s sentiments are vast. Teachers are made to feel that they alone are responsible for their learners’ results. This, in turn, contributes to the manner in which teaching and learning take place: the end-result is what Wiliam refers to as “telling”1. The nature of the Senior Certificate examination, itself, is responsible for much of this “telling”. It is critical that the manner in which assessment takes place within the NCS bring about changes to South African education. We need to develop critically-aware learners who have the necessary skills, knowledge and values to adapt to an ever-changing world.
ASSESSMENT VIEWED WITHIN A HISTORICAL CONTEXT
Strategies have always been used to measure the ability of learners in schools. Indeed, Siebörger (2004:5) states that “assessment has always been part of education” (my emphasis). Such strategies (often referred to as traditional types of assessment) have largely focused on ‘pen and paper’ methods, notably tests, examinations and written exercises (cf. Reddy 2004:37). ‘Pen and paper’ methods, however, constitute only one type of assessment.
Over time, as a result of changes within educational philosophy, as well as curriculum development, internationally, assessment strategies have become more diverse, and an attempt has been made to focus on the accurate reporting of learners’ ability.
The manner in which assessment takes place within an education system, can give an accurate reflection of the education system as a whole. This is corroborated by Rowntree (1987:1) who states that if “we wish to discover the truth about an education system, we must look into its assessment procedures”. What are the implications of such a statement? Like many other systems, the education system is dependent on the stakeholders involved in it; these include, inter alia, education officials, educators, parents and learners2. In view of the human element within the system and, as a result, the personal nature of the teaching process, it is often difficult to gauge just how effective the education process really is. However, when one broaches the notion of assessment procedures, one encounters something infinitely more tangible: the how, why and by what means of assessment can be studied, analysed and
1 Throughout this dissertation, quotation marks have been used as follows: double quotation marks have been used for direct quotations and subsequent references to direct quotations; in all other instances, single quotation marks have been used.
2 It is acknowledged that politics also plays an important role in the education process and that education often becomes a political tool in the hands of unscrupulous politicians.
reported on. In so doing the “truth” about an education system – i.e. the realities as they exist – can be brought to the fore.
On 24 March 1997, the then Minister of Education, Sibusiso Bengu, unveiled the new South African curriculum – Curriculum 20053 – underpinned by the philosophy of Outcomes-based Education (OBE). In theory, the new curriculum reflected a radical departure from the past which had, for the most part, been informed by the philosophy of Christian National Education (CNE) and had consisted of segregated education systems. The intended aims of the new curriculum were outlined as follows; to:
integrate education and training;promote lifelong learning for all South Africans;be based on outcomes rather than content;equip all learners with knowledge, competencies and orientations needed to be successful after completing their studies;encompass a culture of human rights, multi-lingualism, multi-culturalism and a sensitivity to the values of reconciliation and nation building; andaim at producing thinking, competent future citizens (DoE 1997:7).
Notwithstanding the need to eradicate the legacy of apartheid on South African education, such aims are also in keeping with the worldwide trends of increasing globalisation and internationalisation, rooted firmly within the philosophy of post-modernism (cf. Christie 1997:114ff). In addition, Du Toit and Du Toit (2004:3) contend that “it seems as though schooling has not been keeping up with the challenges of real-life situations”. The aims of OBE appear to attempt to counteract this trend. Despite the fact that OBE has attracted significant attention – much of it negative in nature – the decision to implement the system had far-reaching effects for the education system as a whole. In view of the nature of OBE (i.e. being outcomes-driven), the process of assessment has, at least in theory, been significantly affected. Political expediency has also had a direct bearing on the assessment process. Reddy (2004:32) highlights a possible reason for this, by confirming that “changing patterns of educational assessment are underpinned by philosophical approaches to assessment and education, and are often linked to political interests”.
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