Every year for the past four years the department of basic education has tried — unsuccessfully — to implement competency tests for matric markers. Each year the teacher unions derail these well-intentioned plans, with the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (Sadtu) raising the biggest ruckus.
The department’s logic is flawless: the integrity of the marking and moderation procedures of the National Senior Certificate exam depends crucially on the ability of markers to assess student responses accurately. Furthermore, without directly testing the content knowledge and marking competency of teachers one cannot be sure that the quality of matric markers is such that matric pupils receive the marks they deserve.
Importantly, the tests the department proposes would be conducted in a confidential, dignified and equitable manner that would not undermine the professionalism of applicants.
Sadtu counters that all teachers are equally capable of marking the matric exams and thus there is no need for minimum competency tests for prospective markers. This flies in the face of everything we know about teachers’ content knowledge and the pedagogical skills of large parts of the South African education system.
In a 1999 book, Getting Learning Right, Penny Vinjevold and Nick Taylor summarised the results of 54 studies commissioned by the Joint Education Trust, and wrote: “The most definite point of convergence across the President’s Education Initiative studies is the conclusion that teachers’ poor conceptual knowledge of the subjects they are teaching is a fundamental constraint on the quality of teaching and learning activities, and consequently on the quality of learning outcomes.” By implication this includes their ability to mark complex material accurately.
More recently, a 2011 report [p13] by the Southern and Eastern African Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality found that only 32% of grade six mathematics teachers in South Africa had desirable levels of mathematics content knowledge, compared with 90% in Kenya and 76% in Zimbabwe.
I could go on and mention the numerous provincial studies that have been conducted in the North West, the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and elsewhere that all find the same thing — extremely low levels of teacher content knowledge in the weakest parts of the schooling system — which, crucially, make up the majority of South Africa’s schools.
Given this situation, one wonders how Sadtu can argue that all matric teachers are equally competent to mark the matric exams or that they should not be tested. The union stance is that a system of teacher testing will disadvantage teachers from poor schools who cannot compete with those from wealthier schools. Although it is certainly true that the department has failed to provide meaningful learning opportunities to teachers in these underperforming schools, jeopardising the marks of matric pupils to make this stand is misguided, unethical and potentially even illegal.
These are important but separate issues and should be dealt with in different forums. But it is worth noting that the Western Cape has been testing prospective matric markers in the province since 2011, the only province in the country to do so.
The logic of the unions on this matter is perplexing. On numerous occasions they have rightly argued that teachers in poorer schools have not had meaningful learning opportunities and, therefore, that teachers are unequally prepared to teach, and by implication also unequally prepared to mark. Yet now they are arguing that all matric teachers are equally capable of marking the matric exams? So which is it? You can’t have it both ways. They either are or are not equally competent to mark matric exams. If it is the former, one cannot ensure children will receive the marks they are due; and if it is the latter, then one simply cannot argue that teachers should not be assessed prior to being appointed as markers.
On this question, a colleague of mine asked the following question: “How does the department employ people to teach matric when they are not considered competent to mark?” The uncomfortable answer is that, unfortunately, many matric teachers are neither competent to mark nor to teach — and this is because of no fault of their own. The blame instead falls squarely at the feet of the department, which has not provided them with quality professional development opportunities.
If one looks at the specifics of appointing matric markers, the union objections become even more bizarre. Although all matric teachers are legally allowed to apply to be matric markers, who is appointed and the criteria used for making these appointments are solely at the department’s discretion. Provided that these criteria are aligned with the position and are not discriminatory on such grounds as race, gender and sexual orientation, the department can select whomever it decides is most capable of doing the job.
Currently the selection criteria relate to qualifications, teaching experience and language proficiency, but — bizarrely — not content knowledge. Given the nature of the work — assessing student responses for grading purposes — it seems only logical that applicants should be able to demonstrate this competency prior to being appointed for possessing it.
Because of the importance of the matric exam’s results for the life chances of individual pupils both in terms of further education opportunities and labour-market prospects, the department should put its foot down and take a stand for the 700 000 or so part-time and full-time students who are writing matric this year: it should insist that the 30 000-odd matric markers be tested prior to appointment.
Pupils, parents and school governing bodies have every reason to be concerned when there is no formal testing process to ensure that the teachers who will mark their all-important matric exams have the competence to do so in a consistent, fair and unbiased manner. Whether or not competency tests for matric markers are implemented has nothing to do with the unions and everything to do with the fairness of the marking and moderation procedures.
In sum, should prospective matric markers be tested prior to appointment? Yes. Is this a union issue? No. Will this be the last we hear of it? Unfortunately not.
The most tragic part of the above article is that I wrote it in November 2013 (published in the M&G here) and yet I can republish it here with one amendment; changing the sentence in the first line “for the past three years” to “for the past four years.” Matric markers are STILL not assessed before they are appointed, despite practically everyone agreeing that they should be tested. The second and third largest teacher unions (NAPTOSA and SAOU) both do not oppose teacher testing) Most notably the Ministerial Task Team report on the NSC (2014) who concluded that “Only the Western Cape selected its markers in 2013 based upon competency tests and was possibly disadvantaged by the strictness of the marking in its final overall results. A multifaceted, urgent and substantial intervention is called for to deal with the significant problems with the marking and the impact of this on the validity and reliability of the results” (Page 150 of the report). Why is it that the Minister can’t do the right thing on an issue that is UNAMBIGUOUSLY clear, rather than caving to SADTU?! This situation is utterly utterly disgraceful.
As a teacher, it perplexes me that teachers can graduate from a tertiary institution with a teaching qualification allowing them to teach the subjects they’ve taken as method subjects at university and remain incompetent in content knowledge. Does some of the problem not then lie with these tertiary institutions that are failing to equip teachers, yet granting them qualifications to teach the subjects taken as method subjects?
I’m a matric marker in the Western Cape, by the by, and so have been declared competent based on the results of competency tests administered by the WCED. I find it insulting, however, to be made to write these, especially when the DoE or SAQA are not getting to the root of the issue, which in my mind, is the incompetence of tertiary institutions offering teaching qualifications.
Perhaps these competency tests are aimed at teachers who, twenty or thirty years ago, went into teaching with Standard 8 plus a diploma of some sort?
Very few of these teachers are still in classroom teaching. But seriously, a competence test every, single year? And those who fail the test simply don’t get to mark, no upskilling or other support is offered to them in order to become competent. Which means that the intention is not to improve teaching, it’s merely to facilitate competent marking. What’s the point of that when you’re not addressing the most important issues; the ones that will actually benefit students, as opposed to just failing them in matric.
It’s a misguided rant. Rant in a diverted direction.
Many of the teachers that are currently in the system were trained under apartheid (upward of 40%) and have done some kind of ‘upgrade’ in-service training. The consensus is that those upgrading programs (ACE and NPDE mainly) are really substandard and didn’t really help. As far as the logistics of how and when markers would be tested, it would probably be every 4-5 years or so, so you would only have to do the test once every 4-5 years which doesn’t seem very onerous. The current plans are that the teachers who fail should go into a training program BUT I don’t think that we should only start testing teachers once we have those training programs in place. As in law, we have to balance the competing interests of the teachers (who deserve training opportunities) and the students (who deserve fair marking). I’ve written about this in the last part of my chapter on Accountability and Capacity – http://ijr.org.za/publications/pdfs/TA%202013%20text%20and%20cover%20web.pdf
I speak from experience about the current situation. I’ve had to take the competency test every year for the past 3 years. No, every 4-5 years is not that onerous but that’s not how it stands. Also, teachers who have not passed the competency test, for the past 3 years, have not been offered support in order to become competent, so how many more years need to pass by before students receive upskilled, competent teachers from, at least, amongst those teachers who have been tested and graded by the DBE?
If ACE and other upgrading programmes have not been successful, then again, go to the tertiary institutions offering these programmes, they need to be held accountable. Teachers invest a huge amount of personal time in these programmes, leaving a full day of teaching and school admin to rush to university to attend lectures and tutorials and many more hours on assignments and studying and if they’re useless, that’s just unfair.
Direct the rant towards those who are failing teachers – and ultimately the students – when they are meant to be uplifting them.