Category Archives: Newspaper articles

Afrikaans universities perpetuate racial divisions (our M&G article)

black and white

[Image: Norman Akcroyd]

[This article first appeared in the Mail & Guardian on the 4th of March 2016]

Afrikaans universities perpetuate racial divisions – Nic Spaull & Debra Shepherd

In the last 2 weeks we have seen a number of protests erupt at former Afrikaans-only universities, specifically at the University of Pretoria and the University of the Free State. The reasons for the protests were numerous and included workers’ wages, accommodation, fees and the use of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction. At Stellenbosch University, a court case between AfriForum and the University was settled out of court last month and seemed to involve a reversal from the position of making English the primary medium of instruction at the University and instead giving English and Afrikaans equal status. For too long the issue of language in education has been dominated by ideological viewpoints that have little appreciation for, or understanding of, the empirical reality in South Africa. Of course language is inherently political – dealing as it does with issues of power, culture and identity – but those promoting or opposing a particular view need to show how those views square up with the linguistic, historical and socioeconomic context that we find ourselves in. Our aim here is to put some empirical evidence on the table so that we can move away from the anecdotes and ideologies that are currently driving policy and public-perception.

For over 50 years the apartheid government nurtured and resourced White-only schools and universities – both English and Afrikaans – while systematically under-resourcing institutions serving Black students. At the height of apartheid, the government allocated the same amount of resources to one White student at school as it did to 10 Black students at school. Even at the end of apartheid the average White child was receiving three and a half times as many resources from the government as the average Black child in one of the homelands. This legacy lives on in the post-apartheid period with ‘ex-Model-C’ schools continuing to be well-resourced as a result of the inertia of institutional functionality and the on-going investment by parents (of all races) that can afford fees, bequests and donations. The same can be said for former-White-only universities.

At universities the three major barriers preventing Black students accessing high-quality institutions are fees, language and weak academic results (from attending dysfunctional schools). The evidence of financial exclusion and financial inaccessibility is now well known. A research note published by our colleagues earlier this year showed that the cost of a BA degree at Stellenbosch had increased 30% between 2006 and 2015 and now requires 44% of average adult income. However there is far less evidence on the table about how many students are excluded from Stellenbosch because of language.

Of those students who qualified with a bachelor’s pass in matric 2014, every single student in the country took either English Home Language or English Second Language. In contrast, 61% of matrics who qualified with a bachelor’s pass did not take any Afrikaans subjects, either as a Home Language or a Second Language. If one looks at Black African students only, then 86% took no Afrikaans at all. It is reasonable to assume that 86% of Black African students who qualify to go to university understand no Afrikaans at all. How then are these students meant to understand some of their university subjects in Afrikaans if they are accepted at our university?

Frequently these students are told “If you don’t speak Afrikaans then go to one of the English universities”, as if there were an abundance of high-functioning English universities. There are only a limited number of ‘first-choice’ universities, and Stellenbosch is one of them. Under apartheid Stellenbosch, like it’s English White-only counterparts, was heavily resourced for 50 years and cannot now be ‘claimed’ by only one group. Stellenbosch has some of the best facilities and the best faculty in the country and should be available to all students, not only those that understand Afrikaans.

It is an uncomfortable truth that not all of South Africa’s 26 universities were born equal or are equal today – much like the born-frees. In the recent QS University ranking Stellenbosch was ranked the second best university in South Africa (after the University of Cape Town). In contrast, during the last 5 years three South African universities were placed under administration due to gross maladministration and bankruptcy. Of course the QS Rankings (like any rankings) are always dodgy, but Stellenbosch remains in the top 5 universities in the country irrespective of the measure you choose; NRF rated professors, research output, PhD production, students’ ‘first-choice’ etc.

At Stellenbosch there still exist dual-medium English and Afrikaans classes where lecturers switch between the two languages as they teach, essentially excluding (or confusing) those students who do not understand Afrikaans. In some courses there are also interpretation services. (Importantly this is usually from Afrikaans to English, not the other way around). A common thread of student protests at Stellenbosch has been that the interpretation services – referred to as ‘ghost whisperers’ – are inadequate, frustrating and create second-class students in the lecture hall. Having a mediated, second-hand learning experience is extremely frustrating and alienating. The issue of ‘separate’ English/Afrikaans classes and separate residence allocation based on language (which is against policy) is also highly problematic. It often leads to White-only Afrikaans classes or accommodation, which exists alongside mixed English classes and accommodation. How does this lead to integration and mutual understanding?

In a multilingual country like South Africa the ideal would be the development and use of all languages to the exclusion of none. The thing is, we have 11. This is simply not feasible in the short or even medium term. It is our view that in the balancing act between the right to access a historically well-resourced and currently highly-functional university; and the (qualified) right to learn in a home language, the former outweighs the latter. 100% of students that qualify for university do understand English while only 40% understand Afrikaans. Among Black African students, only 14% of those who qualify for university took any Afrikaans at school. We cannot see how excluding 86% of Black students from accessing Stellenbosch University is fair given our apartheid history, or how the University will become more representative of the country without transforming its language policy. In our view, ensuring that all courses are offered in at least English (without translation) is the least bad alternative of those available. It is not the responsibility of public universities to protect and defend any one language or culture. This is especially so when the patterns of historical and current privilege and exclusion are essentially one and the same.

Nic Spaull & Debra Shepherd are researchers in the Economics Department at Stellenbosch University.

Matric 2015 standardisation matters

denial

OK so I got a little frustrated with explaining the whole matric standardisation vibe to a million people, so here’s the deal once and for all…

Soon after the matric results jamboree ended and people went back to work, there were a few unanswered questions about how the matric exams of 2015 were standardised by Umalusi. Already in September of 2015 I was asking some Departmental officials whether the Minister was going to report the matric results of progressed and non-progressed learners separately (which is what I would’ve done). The logic being that the public (wrongly) view the matric exam as the main indicator of the health of the education system and that if progressed learners were lumped with non-progressed learners there would be excess pressure to ensure that the matric pass rate did not drop too much. But this is not the approach that the DBE took. I also emailed someone in Umalusi to ask how they were planning on doing their standardisation given that the two groups of matrics (2014 and 2015) were so different, with the latter having many more students due to the progressed learner policy.

After comparing the publicly-available Umalusi statement and the publicly available DBE NSC Technical Report 2015 it became possible to see how large the Umalusi adjustments were this for 2014 and 2015 for nine subjects – see table below.

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I won’t rehash my full argument here (if you’re interested read my article Matric Cracks Starting to Show). The yellow highlighted subjects are those that had big jumps in enrolments, for example there were an extra 76,791 learners taking maths-literacy in 2015 compared to 2014. Notice that the pass rates increased substantially between the raw pass rate and the pass rate after (1) Umalusi adjustment, (2) language compensation, (3) school-based assessment. The gist of that article was to say that the progressed learners of 2015 were not properly accounted for in the Umalusi standardisation process and that the most logical reason for a drop in performance of the raw marks was the inclusion of extra (weaker) learners, i.e. progressed learners, rather than a much more difficult exam.

bother

Subsequent to my article, the CEO of Umalusi, Dr Rakometsi, wrote a reply titled “Promoted pupils had no big effect on matric rates” and clarified a number of issues. For the sake of brevity I will summarize the most salient points here:

  • Umalusi was told by the DBE that there were only 66,088 progressed learners
  • If one excludes these 66,088 progressed learners then the failure rate within subjects increased by between 1% and 4%.
  • He confirmed that “the pass rate on raw marks is at 38% for maths-literacy
  • The maximum adjustment that Umalusi can make is 10 percentage points which was applied for mathematics literacy “because the paper turned out to be more difficult in 2015 compared to previous years. As a results of this maximum adjustment, 27% of learners who scored between 20-29% obtained a pass”
  • One paragraph in the article is particularly important and so I quote it verbatim:

“The report indicates that the impact of progressed learners to the individual subjects was minimal. As a result, there was no basis to standardise the results of the progressed learners separately. What we call progressed learners is actually only the KNOWN progressed learners. The argument that there were more is an assumption. Umalusi can only work on the information before it, not on assumptions and extrapolations.”

From the above we can draw two important conclusions:

(1) The 66,088 progressed learners were not excluded when the results were standardised relative to earlier years, despite knowing that these learners were weaker students. This seems totally bizarre. We know that these are weaker learners, why would we include them in the norm-referencing curve and compare to earlier years were these students did not exist? Even if they only contributed to a drop in the pass rate of between 1-4% why were they excluded?

2) (the most important conclusion) Umalusi only looked at the 66,088 “officially” progressed learners and ignored all the other information suggesting that there might be additional weaker learners who were actually progressed learners but were not captured as progressed learners, what I called “quasi-progressed” learners in my article. We know that provinces are not recording who is a progressed learner with the same accuracy.

Perhaps the most telling evidence is just to ask how many extra matrics there were in 2015 compared to 2014? The answer is 111,676 (644,536 in 2015 compared to 532,860 in 2014). But if there were only 66,088 progressed learners, where did the remaining 45,588 learners come from?

dissolve

Some have suggested that it’s from a change of age policy that happened in 1998, but that lead to a small cohort in 2011/2012 not now, as Stephen Taylor has shown using EMIS data. The table below (taken from here) shows the different enrolment numbers by year and grade. What we can see is that the matric class of 2011 was always going to be small  If we look at the matric class of 2011 there were 534,498 learners in matric and only 930,019 learners in grade 8 four years earlier. Basically we knew that the matric class of 2011 was going to be smaller. Whereas if we look at the matric class of 2015 (with 687,230 learners according to this table) this is unexplainably big. If we look at the grade 8 cohort of 2011 we see that there were 1,008,110 which is only about 7000 learners more than the grade 8 class of 2010. So how are we to explain the massive difference we see when we compare the 2014 and 2015 matrics (111,676)?

Screen Shot 2016-01-24 at 2.04.53 PM

In my mind the answer is straight-forward – the extra learners in matric 2015 are the direct result of trying to decrease grade repetition by “promoting” weaker learners into higher grades rather than fail them. If this is correct then we needed to exclude the full 111,676 learners when standardising relative to earlier years. Umalusi will (and has) argued that this was not possible and that they did not even try to take into account of quasi-progressed learners.

head banging

So those of you that’ve read this far might be asking “So who cares? Why is this even important?” and the answer is that it matters a lot for universities and the labour-market if Umalusi gets this wrong.  If the standardisation process assumed that a drop in the raw marks was only due to an increase in test difficulty (which is what Umalusi did) when a more plausible explanation was that it was because we included an extra 21% of weaker learners, then the real value (and signal) of a basic matric is actually declining over time.

On page 171 of the 2014 Ministerial Task Team Review of the NSC we read the specifications of when Umalusi can and cannot adjust matric marks:

“Reasons for differences may include: cohort differences, changes in curriculum, changes in setters of the examination papers, disruptions in the schooling processes and security leakages. In the absence of evidence of such possible reasons, it is then generally accepted that the differences are due to deviations in the standards of the examination or marking and therefore marks are adjusted to compensate for the deviations (Umalusi 2007a, 29).” [emphasis added]

Personally I do think that some of these tests increased in difficulty, but it is ludicrous to think that adding 21% more students who are KNOWN to be weaker students would not decrease the marks. Also this is the first year where basically all adjustments were upward. There was not a single downward adjustment. Coincidence much?

thats messed up

Just because Umalusi could not identify the quasi-progressed learners doesn’t mean they can just ignore them. Hence the cartoon above. It would seem that Umalusi has essentially said “Yes we can see that the cohort is much bigger. Yes we can see that there was a clear policy intervention to progress weaker learners. Yes we can see that the official numbers of progressed learners do not match with the full increase in the size of the cohort. But we are going to pretend that there were only 66,088 progressed learners. We refuse to accept any other reality because we can’t do anything about it anyway so what’s the use in knowing.

The fact that the marks were pushed up primarily at the bottom (probably too much) means that students passed in 2015 who would not have passed in 2012. It means students have qualified to study basic degrees in 2015 who would not have qualified if they wrote in 2012. So, if I’m right, any of the following could result:

  • There will be a flood of applications for degrees and diploma’s that require the lowest levels of matric points. Thousands more students will have ‘met the criteria’ and the universities would not have not anticipated this. In fact I have already heard that UNISA has had an unprecedented increase in applications, Edgewood at UKZN has been swamped. Damelin has a huge spike in applications. If I’m right then these students should never have qualified for university and will fail. They might incur debt, move province, make life decisions based on incorrect signal. (Let us not speculate on how the surge in applications for NSFAS will stoke the FeesMustFall fire and mean that there is less to go around and more angry students with hopes and dreams that the State cannot fulfil.
  • Universities will see students that are not even remotely prepared for higher academic study and will have to increase their access programs and expect higher failure rates.
  • As a result of the above the universities will increase the matric-point requirements for entry into their programs for 2017 (particularly programs like B.A, B.Soc-Sci, B.Ed etc.). They will also start to rely more on the National Benchmarking Tests in their selection criteria. [Sidebar, researchers should compare NBT results with matric results in 2013, 2014 and 2015 to see if there are any differences that might be attributable to wrongly-boosted matric marks]. 
  • The gap between the earnings of those with a matric and those with a matric+degree will grow (note it is already large, see graph below). This is largely because the adjustment was primarily at the bottom meaning there are many more students with a low-level-matric who have, in effect, lower levels of knowledge and skill than low-level-matrics of 5 years ago.

Screen Shot 2016-01-24 at 2.30.15 PM

(Source: Hendrik van Broekhuizen, 2013, here)

As I said, none of the above precludes the fact that the tests were more difficult in 2015 (although this is still speculation). I am only saying that there is no way in my mind that including an extra hundred thousand weaker learners didn’t play any part in the drop in the raw marks. And, in essence, that is what Umalusi is arguing.

oprah no

Dr Rakometsi and I will be discussing this on the Redi Hlabi show at 10am tomorrow (25 Jan 2016). It should be an interesting discussion 🙂

redi-tlhabi_detail.jpg

“Matric Cracks Starting to Show” – my ST article

crack

(The article below first appeared in the Sunday Times on the 10th of January 2016)

Like so many things in South Africa, this year’s matric results are a paradox of good policies badly implemented. This time it was the Minister’s bold ‘promotion policy’ that led to an extra 21% more learners writing matric (644,536 this year compared to 532,860 last year). The policy limits the number of times learners can repeat a grade to once every three years and means fewer students drop out, being ‘promoted’ instead. While her decisive action has led to increased efficiency and improved access, it has also inadvertently caused a huge crack in the matric standardisation process, one that is only now starting to become apparent. The fact that the Department did not properly identify all progressed learners, and that Umalusi did not (and perhaps could not) take account of all progressed learners in their standardisation process calls into question the massive upward adjustments in marks that took place behind the scenes.

As usual, some commentators have myopically focussed on the drop in the matric pass rate, from 76% (2014) to 71% (2015) as if this, in and of itself, were a meaningful indication of anything. It isn’t. Or that it signalled a decline in quality, or harder exams. It doesn’t. Yes, the matric pass rate went down but the number of learners passing it went up. And in fact the real question might not be why the matric pass rate dropped, but why it didn’t drop further. In comparing the media statement from Umalusi and the technical report from the Department, the answer is quite clear. The decision was made to raise the raw marks across the board, from Maths and Physical Science to Life Science, Maths Literacy, History, Accounting, Geography and 24 other subjects. Umalusi themselves make a point of emphasizing that this was an “unprecedented set of adjustments”. When the Maths Literacy pass rate is adjusted from 38% to the final (and publicly reported) 71%, this is most certainly unprecedented, and I would argue, unwarranted. 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 learners who would’ve otherwise dropped out? If so, Umalusi shouldn’t have adjusted.

This is not to say that the Minister was wrong in introducing the promotion policy. Quite the opposite; she was heeding local and international research which shows that excessive repetition is costly, inefficient and has no educational benefit to the learner. Yes, we do need to find ways of preventing and remediating the problem, but rooting out wasteful repetition in the mean time is prudent and wise. A positive effect of this policy and the extra-large class of 2015 meant many more learners taking and passing key subjects, with about 52,000 extra matric passes, 9000 extra maths passes and 15,500 extra bachelor passes.

Both Umalusi and the Department claim that there were only 65,671 progressed learners. Yet there were an extra 111,676 matrics this year. So where did the other 46,005 extra learners come from? The clear answer is that there was a big policy change preventing schools failing learners multiple times and encouraging them to promote weak learners and push them into matric. Secondly, the way provinces record and report who is a progressed learner is highly dubious and varies by province and district. So, although we have approximately 66,000 ‘officially’ progressed learners, we also have 46,000 ‘quasi-progressed’ learners (what Umalusi calls ‘borderline candidates’).

The reason why all of this matters is because it influences the decision of whether to adjust the matric results and by how much. Umalusi is only ever meant to adjust the marks up or down if they believe the exam was harder or easier than previous years. The core assumption in this standardisation process is that the different matric cohorts (2013, 2014 or 2015 matrics) are of equal ability. Thus, any differences between the years can only be because the paper was easier or harder. And this is where the crack emerges. There is simply no way that the 2015 distribution of 645,000 matrics (including progressed and quasi-progressed learners) are as strong as the distribution of 533,000 learners in 2014. Thus the reason the 2015 cohort did so much worse on the raw scores was because of the extra 112,000 weaker learners, not because the tests were harder. We know that Umalusi did not take this into account because there is no way of identifying the 46,000 quasi-progressed learners. In Umalusi’s defence they couldn’t have excluded them even if they had wanted to because provinces didn’t record them. But it doesn’t seem Umalusi excluded these 112,000 (or even the 66,000) learners when they standardised the 2014 and 2015 distributions. This is illogical.

In an unusual change from previous media statements, this year Umalusi included the raw failure rates of subjects (i.e. before any adjustments). This can be compared to the marks in the technical report issued by the Department. The only difference between the two figures are the Umalusi adjustment, a small change due to school based assessments and a small language compensation for second language learners (extra 4 percentage points). When I refer to ‘raw’ and ‘final-adjusted’ pass rates I mean before and after these are accounted for. The three subjects I will focus on here are Maths Literacy, Geography and Business Studies since they all have big increases in enrolments which suggests these were the subjects taken by the progressed and quasi-progressed learners. The differences between the raw pass rate and the final-adjusted pass rate are large for Geography (increased from 66% to 77%), for Business Studies (increased from 54% to 76%) and especially for Maths Literacy (from a shockingly low 38% to 71% after adjustments!). For a national assessment these are incredibly large adjustments.

This could only be justified if the 2015 exams were extraordinarily more difficult in 2015 than in 2014. I simply do not buy it. The internal and external moderators all agreed that these exams were set at the appropriate level. To warrant adjustments of this magnitude they would have had to have been way out in their judgements. Why are we looking for alternative explanations for the big drop in raw marks when this one is staring us in the face? The most logical and obvious reason for the drop is the inclusion of an extra 112,000 weaker learners in 2015. Paper difficulty is marginal by comparison. In maths literacy alone there were 76,791 extra candidates in 2015. Where did these learners come from? It is clear that these are the weaker progressed and borderline candidates and that they are the main reason why the raw marks dropped so much. If so then we cannot just adjust the raw marks upwards, as was done this year.

The Umalusi standardisation process is necessary and probably the best we can do when different papers are written year-on-year, but Umalusi needs to clarify what happened here and in future be more transparent in their standardisation process. Unfortunately, no amount of standardisation can solve the biggest problem in our education system which is the fact that most children attending the poorest 75% of schools do not learn to read for meaning by the end of grade three and are forever behind. Indeed, matric starts in grade 1.

Dr Nic Spaull is an education economist at Stellenbosch University. He can be found on Twitter @NicSpaull and his work can be found at nicspaull.com

“Early action key to improving maths” – my Business Day article

Teacher+January+28+2014

(The article below appeared in the Business Day on the 6th of July 2015.)

Early action key to improving maths” – Dr Nic Spaull

When people speak about the economic importance of maths and science my mind does not immediately jump to technological innovations such as Google, Tesla or SpaceX — all of which are impossible without the mathematical and scientific insight of their founders and engineers.

I am instead reminded of a tenacious African woman, who my good friend and colleague, Prof Veronica McKay, told me about a few years ago. McKay was assigned the mammoth task of developing a government adult education programme (Kha Ri Gude) for those excluded from education under apartheid, especially the illiterate and innumerate among them.

Asked why she had attended the six-month course, one of the participants replied: “Because I wanted to know how to count. I wanted to know when I have enough money to buy things at the shop. Before, I just had to hold out my hand with my money and the man at the shop would take the money and give me back the change. I don’t think he was giving me the right change, but now I can tell.”

SA aspires to much more than basic financial literacy, and the lofty curriculum and policy documents are testament to this.

There are many improvements in education for which the government does not get enough credit. It has implemented a good curriculum, rolled out workbooks and textbooks to almost all students, and launched annual national assessments that will one day provide the kind of useful information we need.

It also provides school meals to more than 8-million pupils every single day. This is no small feat.

Unfortunately, the major failure has been in meaningful teacher development where little has been done. This helps explain the current reality where the vast majority of pupils still do not acquire even minimal competencies in maths and science during their school years.

The most recent reliable international assessment, the Trends in International Maths and Science Study (TIMSS), tested our Grade 9 students on the international Grade 8 test.

To those outside of academia, it is difficult to convey how abysmally low SA’s average TIMSS maths (352) and science (332) scores really are.

They mean that three-quarters (76%) of Grade 9 pupils in 2011 still had not acquired a basic understanding of whole numbers, decimals, operations or basic graphs and could not recognise basic facts from the life and physical sciences.

Here are some example questions from the test to help illustrate the problem:

  • “Kim is packing eggs into boxes. Each box holds six eggs. She has 94 eggs. What is the smallest number of boxes she needs to pack all the eggs?”

Only 12% of South African Grade 9 students could answer this. The results are poor even in the best-performing province, the Western Cape, which scored 20% on this question, and in the wealthiest 20% of schools where 33% could answer it correctly.

  • “The fractions 4/14 and q/21 are equivalent. What is the value of q?” Only 33% of our Grade 9 students can answer this correctly.
  • Only 61% of Grade 9 students knew that 3/5 is equal to 0.6. This was the easiest question in the test and is covered in the Grade 6 curriculum.

Research that I and others have conducted shows that about 80% of our Grade 9 pupils are achieving at a Grade 5 level in mathematics and that the backlog starts in Grades 1 to 3.

My best reading of the research base in mathematics in SA leads me to conclude that it is ludicrous to focus our efforts on interventions in Grades 9 to 12, when it is clear these learning deficits are already present in Grade 3 — where less than one third of students can calculate a Grade 3-level problem such as “270 + 28 = __”.

Half of Grade 5 students cannot calculate “24 ÷ 3 = ___”.

It is near impossible to remediate four years of backlogs in one or two years. We need to focus on improving the quality of teaching and teacher training in primary schools. The later in life we try to repair early deficits, the costlier the remediation becomes.

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