Category Archives: Education

EGRS: Probably the most important education research/intervention post-apartheid

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Breaking News: New ‘gold-standard’ study finds improvement of 40% of a year of learning in reading for disadvantaged children in South Africa. (At least that would be the title I’d pick if I was a sub-editor reporting on EGRS!)

In South Africa and around the world today there are many reasons to be despondent – whether about inequality, the environment or some of our political overlords. But every now and then we learn of truly amazing things that are happening despite all the shit in the world, and the Early Grade Reading Study (EGRS) is the best example of this in South Africa. The researchers leading the study were Stephen Taylor (DBE), Brahm Fleisch (Wits) and Mpumi Mohohlwane (DBE).

For those of you who don’t already know about it, have you been living under a rock? The EGRS study was a large randomised control trial that aimed to determine which (if any) interventions improve early grade reading outcomes in home language (Setswana) in 230 Quintile 1-3 schools in the North West province in South Africa. It was implemented in 2015 (Grade 1) and 2016 (Grade 2) and today the final results of the intervention were released and they are very encouraging! I would suggest everyone reads the EGRS Policy Summary Report and I include the great infographics below:

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There are also three additional EGRS reports:

My ‘Lead the Change’ Q&A with AERA SIG

See below for a Q&A session I did for the Augest edition of “Lead the Change” run by the AERA SIG on Educational Change. PDF here.

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Barbara Band’s links on diversity and inclusion

barbaraLast week I spoke at the South African Librarian’s Conference at Highbury in KZN (presentation one and presentation two) and heard Barbara Band speak about how the library can be a vital tool to make schools more inclusive and help all students thrive. It struck a cord for me because in high school I basically lived in the library during breaks for three years. My librarians weren’t especially empathetic or insightful but it was still a safe place in an unsafe school. As always we can’t forget that South Africa is a deeply unequal country and that only 37% of learners are in a school with a library (Page 20 from this DBE report).

In Barbara’s address she mentioned a bunch of different sites and resources and I asked her to email them to me so I could share the mall with you, so here they are:

Booklists and bookshops:

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List of organisations that support diversity and inclusion:

  • Ditch The Label – anti-bullying charity supporting 12 – 25 year olds
    www.ditchthelabel.org
  • EACH – Educational Action Challenging Homophobia: provides training, support and resources.
    http://www.each.education/
  • Educate and Celebrate – Ofsted and DFE recognised programme to implement LGBTQ/inclusive curriculum
    www.educateandcelebrate.org
  • Gendered Intelligence – a not-for-profit company whose aim is to increase understandings of gender diversity.
    http://genderedintelligence.co.uk/
  • GIRES – Gender Identity Research and Education Society: aim is to improve lives of trans and gender non-conforming people. Lots of links to articles, research, legal advice, etc.
    http://www.gires.org.uk/
  • 6IGLYO – International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer Youth and Student Organisation: works with over 95 LGBTQ groups, run by and for young people.
    http://www.iglyo.com/
  • Inclusive Minds – a group of consultants and campaigners working to improve diversity in children’s literature.
    http://www.inclusiveminds.com/
  • Kidscape – deals with anti-bullying and child protection
    www.kidscape.org.uk
  • Mermaids – Family and individual support for children and teens with Gender Identity Issues.
    http://www.mermaidsuk.org.uk/
  • 4Metro – Equality and diversity charity, focusing mainly around London and South East.
    www.metrocentreonline.org
  • Rewind – works in education to challenge racism and extremism
    http://rewind.org.uk
  • Schools Out UK – aim is to make schools safe and inclusive for everyone: lots of links to resources and other relevant websites.
    www.schools-out.org.uk
  • Stonewall – help and advice, carries out research, partners with schools and organisations, lots of resources.
    http://www.stonewall.org.uk/
  • Welcoming Schools – aimed at US elementary schools but has useful information, advice, etc.
    http://www.welcomingschools.org/

ALSO USEFUL:

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Who makes it into PISA in Turkey?

Below is a quick summary of what I was working on at the OECD in Paris last year. The full paper is now available online here:

2Of the OECD countries that participate in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), Turkey has one of the lowest levels of performance and the highest rates of improvement in PISA scores. However, most analyses have traditionally ignored one vital question: what percentage of 15 year olds in Turkey are eligible for the PISA sample in each wave of PISA? A new OECD Working Paper focuses on this specific question and sheds new light on the performance of Turkey between 2003 and 2012. It shows that the percentage of students that were eligible for PISA in Turkey between 2003 and 2012 nearly doubled from 36% to 68% (using OECD indicators) or from 45% to 80% (using household survey data). This is summarised in Figure 1 below which provides information from the Turkish Demographic and Health Survey (DHS) of 2003, 2009 and 2012.

Figure 1: The educational status and PISA-eligibility of 15-16 year olds in Turkey in DHS 2003, DHS 2008 and DHS 2013

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While PISA aims to assess a nationally representative sample of 15 year olds, because PISA is a school-based survey, in reality it excludes all students that are no longer in school (due to drop out or non-enrolment). PISA also only samples 15 year olds if they are in Grade 7 or higher. So PISA is really a nationally representative sample of 15 year old students that are still enrolled in school and are currently in Grade 7 or higher. This might sound like a trivial technicality, and in most wealthy OECD countries like Germany or Japan it is. But some OECD countries (like Turkey and Mexico) and many partner countries (like Vietnam and Indonesia) have high levels of student dropout and delay leading to low levels of PISA sample coverage. As an aside, the new PISA-for-Development initiative aims to also survey out-of-school 15 year olds in some of the developing countries participating in that programme.

Since the beginning of PISA, the OECD has reported the percentage of 15 year olds that are actually eligible for PISA, what is called “Coverage Index 3*.” This statistic is calculated using census and enrolment data in each country and is provided in the overall PISA Reports and Technical Reports for all participating countries. For example, in Turkey in PISA 2003, only 36% of 15 year olds were eligible for PISA. That is to say that PISA 2003 in Turkey is only representative of 36% of the country’s 15 year olds. By comparison, the figure in Germany in 2003 was 93%. Table 1 below provides the Coverage Index 3 rates for a selected group of PISA countries with low levels of sample coverage (Germany and Canada are included as reference countries). From this we can see that a number of partner countries have very low levels of sample coverage, including Costa Rica, Indonesia, Peru and Vietnam, but also that some OECD countries (such as Brazil, Mexico and Turkey) have low levels of sample coverage.

Table 1: The percentage of the total 15 year old population covered by the PISA sampling frame (Coverage Index 3) in selected countries

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Given these low levels of sample coverage in some countries, it is reasonable to ask: how would the results change if we included PISA-ineligible 15-year-olds in our calculations? This is the focus of a new working paper published this week, titled “Underestimating Progress and Inequality in Turkey (2003-2012): Using PISA and DHS to form a complete picture of access and quality”. The method and results are briefly summarised below.

The paper applies a new method developed by Spaull & Taylor (2015) which aims to combine statistics on the learning outcomes of 15 year olds that are still in school (using PISA) with data on the number and type of 15 year olds that are not in school (using household-survey data). By assuming that PISA-ineligible students would not have reached PISA Level 2 in Reading and Mathematics – a relatively conservative assumption – we can calculate the percentage of the total population of 15 year olds that reach Level 2 in PISA, rather than only the percentage of those that are still in school. Figure 2 and Figure 3 below provide these breakdowns for Turkey in PISA 2003 and PISA 2012 respectively, and also by gender and socioeconomic subgroups. (Note: ‘Poor40’ means the poorest 40% of 15-16 year olds, and ‘Poor40F’ means poorest 40% of 15-16 year olds that are also female).

Figure 2 Access to Literacy (Level 2) in Turkey 2003 (PISA 2003 and DHS 2003)

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Figure 3 Access to Literacy (Level 2) in Turkey 2012 (PISA 2012 and DHS 2013)

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Note the results above will be different from those found in PISA reports because these results include PISA ineligible 15-16 year olds in the calculations.

The 7 main findings from the above are as follows:

  1. There have been significant increases in PISA sample eligibility over time from around 45% of 15-16 year olds in 2003 to 80% in 2013.
  2. If we account for the growth in PISA eligible 15-16 year olds, the improvement in the percentage of 15-16 year olds acquiring Level 2 is between 2 times larger (for Mathematics) and 5 times larger (in Reading) than previously thought.
  3. Severe delays in grade progression in Turkey have been virtually eliminated and dropout has declined by 42% over this period.
  4. In 2003 the richest group were twice as likely to be eligible for the PISA sample than the poorest group.
  5. Although both boys and girls benefitted over the period, girls benefitted the most.
  6. The gap in access-to-literacy and access-to-numeracy between rich and poor has not changed and is larger than previously thought.
  7. 15-16 year olds in the East region of Turkey are less likely to be eligible for the PISA sample than 15-16 year olds in other regions.

Whether one chooses to use the Coverage Index 3 figures reported by the OECD itself, or those calculated from various DHS surveys, the conclusion is the same: there are large and changing proportions of Turkish students that do not make it into the PISA sampling frame and this has a substantial effect on the validity of inter-country and inter-temporal comparisons. This analysis shows that the gains in Turkey between 2003 and 2012 have actually been even more impressive than if one only looked at PISA data. This method could also usefully be applied to other middle-income and developing countries with high and changing percentages of PISA-eligible 15 and 16 year olds.

References

OECD. (2016). PISA for Development: Benefits for participating countries. PISA for Development Brief (Vol. 2). Paris.

Spaull, N., and Taylor, S., (2015). Access to what? Creating a composite measure of educational quantity and educational quality for 11 African countries. Comparative Education Review. Vol. 58, No. 1.

*There is an error in the Coverage Index 3 values provided in the PISA 2003 Report. The correct Coverage Index 3 values for 2003 can be found in the PISA Technical Report for 2003. See the Working Paper for a full discussion.

The Godfather Speaks

godfYesterday RESEP had our first internal education workshop of the year and it was a great success. One of the presentations was by Martin Gustafsson on various trends and shocks in the  education system. I found it to be especially important and interesting and asked if I could include the presentation in blog format, which Martin kindly agreed to (see below). For those that don’t know Martin he is easily one of the top 3 most knowledgeable people about the SA education system.

The 2 main points that Martin makes are:

  1. There is irrefutable evidence that there has been real progress in learning outcomes in SA over the last decade,
  2. That there is a very strange demographic trend in SA (confirmed by 2 independent data sources) that there was a large increase in births in 2004 and 2005 (in the order of 10%) which is extremely peculiar. Note this has significant implications for resource allocation, class sizes etc. This was discussed in the DBE 2016 Sector Review (see excerpt below), but hasn’t been given nearly enough attention.

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Regarding #2, from discussions with Martin, who has been involved in reviewing the 2013 SACMEQ results, it seems clear that the 2007 to 2013 SACMEQ trend has indeed been positive for South Africa, and about as large as one could expect (and roughly in line with what has been seen in TIMSS). But these positive trends are smaller than the extremely large improvements, which I’ve argued are implausible, seen in earlier preliminary SACMEQ results presented to the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Basic Education in 2016. What the sector urgently needs is the finalising of the 2013 SACMEQ process and the release of official learner results for all SACMEQ countries.

The trends seen in #3 below are from this 2016 paper of Martin’s.

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“At the lower primary level, what has clearly occurred is the entrance of a ‘wave’ of larger birth cohorts. In 2011, Grade 1 enrolments increased by 5.2% relative to 2010. In 2012, Grade 2 enrolments increased by 7.0%. By 2015, the increase had reached Grade 5, with enrolments in this grade increasing by 5.2% relative to 2014. As seen in Table 2 in the appendix, substantial increases were seen across all provinces, with the exception of Eastern Cape, which in fact saw a decline . The increases were strongest in Gauteng and Western Cape, almost certainly because these two provinces experienced a combination of two factors, both the demographic change in terms of larger birth cohorts, plus migration into these provinces. By 2015, grades 1 to 7 enrolments had reached 7,1 million in public ordinary schools, the highest figure since 2007 (when the enrolment total was also around 7.1 million). Moreover, total enrolment in just grades 1 to 5 was higher than it had been in any year since 2002. Projections indicate that the increases will continue to be felt in grades beyond Grade 5 in 2016 and beyond. ” Page 9 of this 2016 DBE Sector Report.

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*Note in the graph s above (top left) the steady rise in births from 1982 to 1998 are simply because of better data-capturing rather than increased births. It stabilises from about 2000.

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For those that haven’t read the DBE 2016 Sector Review I would strongly recommend doing so!

My M&G article on Universities in 2017

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(The above article was published in the Mail & Guardian on the 6th of January 2016 and is available in PDF here).

Students contest the status quo 

Over the last two years, universities in South Africa have become increasingly contested spaces. Student movements like RhodesMustFall and FeesMustFall have categorically rejected the status quo as unacceptable and are working to reorder not only the principles that govern universities, but ultimately the principles that govern the country. Of course the first order of business is challenging our current assumptions about who should go to university, what it should look like, and who should pay for it. And on all three fronts they have been phenomenally successful. It is really quite remarkable that a loose group of students who lack a political mandate, who have not been elected by anyone, and have virtually no resources have managed to achieve so much so quickly. They have brought whole universities to their knees and prompted the creation of a Presidential Task Team. Most significantly they garnered enough support to essentially force the government to allocate an additional R17 billion to higher education in the Medium Term Budget.

About 200 years ago, Napoleon Bonaparte famously quipped that a revolution is simply an idea which has found its bayonets. In the context of the various student movements I think it’s worthwhile to try and identify the underlying idea, its animating principle. As the student movements assemble and reassemble under different names (seemingly quite effortlessly), I think there is a leitmotif running through all of them; the unfinished business of 1994. There is a generation of young Black South Africans who feel that the terms of the negotiated settlement were unjust and let White South Africans off the hook. Dr Amos Wilson. a theoretical psychologist and social theorist, makes the logic behind this position explicit in the following quote:

“Justice requires not only the ceasing and desisting of injustice but also requires either punishment or reparation for injuries and damages inflicted for prior wrongdoing. The essence of justice is the redistribution of gains earned through the perpetration of injustice. If restitution is not made and reparations not instituted to compensate for prior injustices, those injustices are in effect rewarded. And the benefits such rewards conferred on the perpetrators of injustice will continue to “draw interest,” to be reinvested, and to be passed on to their children, who will use their inherited advantages to continue to exploit the children of the victims of the injustice of their ancestors. Consequently, injustice and inequality will be maintained across generations as will their deleterious social, economic, and political outcomes.”

Thinking that the various incarnations of the student movements are primarily about universities is a mistake. RhodesMustfall was not about a statue; it was about reclamation and power and history. Similarly, the challenge today is not only about who should pay fees, but who should own the land. The discontent and anger about the ‘pay-to-play’ market system that we have – where only those who can pay for quality get it – is as much about private hospitals and Model-C schools as it is about universities. The true contested space at our universities at the moment is really about the principles that currently order our society and reimagining different ones.

Fighting for a different future

There are students in South Africa today who look at our country and refuse to accept that the way we are currently doing things is the only way they can be done. How is it that in a country with considerable wealth and resources that we still have 10 million people living on less than R10 a day? Whenever I land at Cape Town International Airport and get an aerial view of Khayelitsha, I think to myself “How the heck can we, as a country, not find a dignified solution to housing for the poor?” In Cape Town we have 400,000 people living in shacks a mere 40-minute drive from the house that sold for R290-million in Bantry Bay. We have decadent opulence living next to extreme poverty. It’s not right.

And so we come back to the contested space at universities where people have different ideas about how we get from where we are to a better future. Students associated with Black-First-Land-First argue for land expropriation without compensation. The Nobel Laureate Thomas Piketty motivates for much steeper wealth and inheritance taxes to level the playing field. The Wits SRC has proposed a once-off ‘apartheid windfall’ tax on “companies that benefited unfairly by abusing state resources” under apartheid.

But since the current discussions at universities are still centred on fees and access to university, let’s start there and think about what 2017 might hold for universities, and put some numbers on the table. Personally I think we will actually find a sustainable solution to student financing at universities, possibly even in 2017. Sizwe Nxasana – the head of the Presidential Task Team – has developed a highly sophisticated and workable model of student funding called the Ikusasa Student Financial Aid Programme (ISFAP) that is being trialled at seven universities this year, focussing on students studying medicine, engineering and accounting. This is essentially a public-private partnership which aims to “significantly increase the funding and resources which are made available to support students from working class families to graduate and find employment by leveraging private sector funding.” One can think of it as a three-tier model with the poorest students being fully funded with grants and the missing-middle with a combination of grants and income-contingent loans (to be repaid only if the recipient does graduate and earns above a certain amount). Then finally, those at the top that can pay fees do pay fees. While it isn’t free education for everyone – and the vanguard may therefore not accept it – if implemented properly it has a good shot at ensuring that no student is excluded from university on financial grounds. That would be a significant achievement.

Thankfully, many in the sector are now realising that needs-blind allocations to higher education – where all students are equally subsidised – are socially regressive and anti-poor. This is largely because the children of the wealthy attend fee-charging schools that give them a much better shot at qualifying for university than the children of the poor. We know that less than 1 in 10 children from the poorest 70% of households qualify to go to university compared to 1 in 2 or 3 children (40%) among the wealthiest 10% of households. And because of this, if one allocated an additional R10bn to higher-education in a blanket fashion, then about R6,8bn (68%) will end up benefitting the wealthiest 20% of South African households because it is their children who are disproportionately at university (according to two fiscal incidence studies). A recent study showed that 60% of students that qualified for university came from the 30% of high schools that charged fees. What is the point of raising revenue by additional taxes on the richest 20% only to give two thirds of that money straight back to them in the form of indirect subsidies to their children?

So if we agree that the rich should not be subsidised (usually defined as those in households with annual income of more than R600,000), how many students would need funding? Professor Servaas van der Berg’s analysis of household surveys has shown that about 60% of the current university-going population would be eligible for funding. (This assumes that income is under-captured in surveys by about 30% . Importantly, this would cover 73% of Black African university students and 30% of White university students.

While ending financial exclusion at university won’t solve the thornier issues in South Africa – about land, inequality, restitution, primary education, unemployment – it would serve as a powerful and invigorating example that things really can be different to what they are now. It would be poetic if the start of a successful campaign for a different South Africa could trace its origins to the toppling of a statue of Cecil John Rhodes.

Dr Nic Spaull is an education researcher at the Research on Socioeconomic Policy (RESEP) group at Stellenbosch University. He is on Twitter @NicSpaull

 

My take on Matric 2016…

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Every year there is a big song and dance about the matric exams and if the pass rate went up or down, which province came out on top etc. etc. Thankfully some organisations like Equal Education are directing our attention to where the root issue is: the weak foundations students get in primary schooling. There is ample evidence of this in maths and reading as the foundational bell-weather subjects that pretty much everything else is built on.

Throughput pass rates

As I’ve mentioned before we need to move beyond our myopic obsession with the matric pass rate and start seeing the results in light of other statistics, notably the throughput pass rate. Rather than calculating the number of students passing matric divided by the number of students writing matric (the traditional matric pass rate) we should also be calculating the number of students who pass matric relative to the number of students in grade 10 two years earlier and those in grade 2 ten years earlier (throughput pass rates). This gives us an idea of how many kids are dropping out along the way and if this is increasing or decreasing over time. (Note that this is also affected by the changing number of students repeating Grade 10. Because we don’t know the number of non-repeating students we have to use the total number of students enrolled in Grade 10).

From the above graph and table we can see the following:

  • The throughput pass rate and the traditional matric pass rate do not always move in tandem. For example, between 2014 and 2015 the traditional matric pass rate went down while the throughput pass rate went up, indicative of the much larger cohort of students who did worse on average but because there were so many more students this meant a higher throughput pass rate (as I ‘ve discussed here and Nick Taylor has made the same argument in 2011).
  • The throughput pass rate has been steadily increasing over time, which is a good thing.
  • Less than half of the cohort (whether Grade 2 or Grade 10) actually pass matric. In our system about 60% of South African youth leave the schooling system without any proof of their educational status.

Standardisation and grade inflation

Secondly there is the issue of standardisation and adjustment. The quality-assurance body Umalusi is tasked with standardising the matric results so that no one year is disadvantaged relative to another. If the exams are more difficult/easy then Umalusi is allowed to adjust the marks upwards/downwards (by a maximum of 10 percentage points). As I discussed last year the presence of an extra 120,000 matrics in 2015 made the process of standardisation much more complicated than it had been in the past. We know these are weaker students and thus would have dragged down average performance, yet the decline in average performance in 2015 was attributed to more difficult papers.

“Was the test really so much more difficult than previous years? (This is the only reason why one is allowed to adjust the marks at all.) Why did the internal and external moderators not pick up the huge increase in difficulty? Is it not more plausible that the massive drop in pre-adjusted performance was actually due to the additional 112,000 weaker pupils who would have otherwise dropped out? If so, Umalusi shouldn’t have adjusted. (from here)”

In my view the standardisation of raw marks should be done without progressed learners included and then applied to progressed learners after the fact. You cannot compare the 2015 and 2016 cohorts (and to some extent the 2014 cohort) with earlier cohorts because they did not have progressed learners. I think this remains an open question and I am quite anxious about the very large adjustments that Umalusi is making, assuming that the tests are getting much more difficult when the most plausible explanation is the inclusion of many more weaker students that typically would have dropped out in the past. (In 2015 the number of students passing maths literacy increased from 38% to 71% and there were similarly large adjustments in 2016).  If I am right about this, and there is essentially a lot of grade-inflation going on, then we are likely to see universities increasing their NSC points entrance criteria and – something which we have already seen over the last 6 years – the use of other criteria like the National Benchmarking Tests.

Provincial performance and sample selection

Every year the media likes to highlight which province has done the best in the matric exams. The competition is usually between our two wealthiest provinces (surprise surprise!), which are Gauteng and the Western Cape. In 2016 the Free State had the highest matric pass rate of 88% and so MEC’s and bureaucrats were all commending the Free State for their achievement. But if we dig a little deeper there are a few thorny questions here…

In 2011 Nick Taylor argued that changes in the matric pass rate can be driven by many things, including the difficulty of the exams, subject combinations and the number of students that actually make it to matric. This later point is the one I want to highlight here – the practice of not letting weaker students get to matric, sometimes referred to as gate-keeping or — and I hate this term — ‘culling’).

When I heard that the Free State and the Northern Cape had increased their matric pass rates significantly (7 and 9 percentage points respectively), my first question was “But did they hold back more students than last year?” So let’s see what the numbers say. Does there seem to be a relationship between the number of Grade 12s writing matric between 2015 and 2016 and a change in the pass rate over the two years? Let’s see…

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So, the three provinces with the largest increases in their matric pass rate also had the biggest declines in the percentage of students writing matric. That’s pretty strange. So if we do a similar analysis to the throughput pass rate above but at a provincial level what do we see? The Free State is no longer first but 4th of the provinces with the Western Cape and Gauteng at the top. And the Northern Cape and KZN are now only marginally better than Limpopo – the second worst performing province.

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There may well be a legitimate explanation for this but our first port of call when seeing a big change like this is a change in the underlying sample. Before we start asking what interventions the Free State implemented we should be asking if the ‘increase’ is legitimate. At least at face value there seems to be a lot more sample selection in the provinces with the highest increases in matric pass rates. And judging from the Grade 10 (2014) and Grade 11 (2015) cohorts it doesn’t look like there was a population decline in these provinces.

So to sum up the above I’d say the following:

  1. We shouldn’t be obsessing about the matric pass rate in isolation or as much as we do.
  2. The biggest problems that should occupy our time, energy and resources are getting the foundations right in primary school.
  3. At least part of the reason why the Free State, the Northern Cape and KZN did better in 2016 than in 2015 is that they held back a higher proportion of their Grade 10 and Grade 11 students than the other provinces.
  4. I think there are still big question marks about the way Umalusi is treating progressed learners in the standardisation process and we may be witnessing quite significant grade inflation.
  5. Universities are likely to feel the brunt of this when their first years are not as well-equipped to succeed as their grades seem to indicate.

So now, I need to get back to Foundation Phase reading research 🙂

The excel file with the above tables/graphs/figures is here in case anyone wants to do their own calculations/graphs.