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The recent postponement of the 2015 Annual National Assessments (ANAs) has sparked a heated debate in South African education circles regarding the benefits and feasibility of such large scale assessments.

It is easy to focus on the shortcomings of these assessments, but we should not forget that they provide important information regarding education across the country. Rather than focusing on their faults, would it not be more constructive to identify ways in which assessments can be effectively used to improve education?

The ANAs represent one of the most ambitious education initiatives in the country. In 2015, 8.6 million learners in Grades 1 to 6, 8 and 9 were scheduled to take part in the October assessment Their main purpose is to monitor the quality of basic education so that educators, policy makers and families can get a clearer sense of where improvements need to be made.

But there is another reason why the ANAs are important. In an education system where failures often, correctly, take centre stage, the ANAs also provide an opportunity to identify what is working in the education system.

The ANAs also play a potentially critical role in informing educational policy in the country. They provide the opportunity to assess what skills learners have acquired based on what they are expected to know at a particular grade level. This information is valuable to both educators and parents.

In addition, districts acquire information which allows them to locate themselves within the educational landscape of the country, and to identify actions, such as curriculum interventions, which are necessary to improve learner performance. These outcomes provide a unique opportunity for an evaluation of the level of education which no other local assessment tool is currently able to do.

Many South Africans are unaware of the role that the ANAs can play in informing the education sector about how to be more responsive to potential problems related to the quality of teaching and learning. They provide information which can be used to design interventions that are informed by current data, and based on reliable assessment measures that are independently verified. This is the strength of the ANAs.

The implementation of the ANAs is however currently far from perfect. Much of the criticism currently making its rounds in the local media focuses on methodological and logistical issues. The fact that the design of the tests makes it difficult to compare results from one year to another has been questioned, as has the decision to allow class teachers to mark their own assessments.

The ANAs have also been lambasted for not allowing enough time for interventions to take root before the next round of assessments are repeated. Along the same lines, some argue that teachers are not provided with enough support regarding how to modify their teaching methods based on the results. Also, little can be done to sanction educators that are clearly failing in their role.

It is interesting that international objections to high-stakes standardised testing like the ANAs echo many of the local concerns discussed here. International critics have also opposed the emphasis that is placed on reading and mathematics at the expense of other subject areas in these kinds of test. In the United States, criticism of the Common Core State Standards has been similar, if not worse, than criticism of the ANAs.

American parents and teachers have complained that children who, in the past, loved mathematics now hate the subject because of the complexity injected into the curriculum by the Common Core requirements. So polarising is the debate on the Common Core that some parents have actually decided that their children should opt-out of the assessments altogether, as they are given a choice regarding participation.

As the debate rages on about whether or not to continue with the ANAs, it’s worth considering what the end result would be of abandoning standardised assessments such as these. Assessments, in their best form, should ensure that expectations in an education system are met. This is particularly important for learners without education champions who can step in when the system is failing them.

Education assessments can and should be that voice, and removing that layer of responsibility can set a dangerous precedent. After all, learners are assessed on a regular basis through homework and class tests. Will all forms of assessment suffer the same fate?

This is not to say that some of the criticism levelled against the ANAs is invalid, but we need to recognise that the consequences of abandoning ANAs, and assessment in general, are far worse than systematic efforts to address their flaws. These flaws are not insurmountable, and every effort should be made to address them.

The bottom line is that the age of assessments is far from over.

International trends show that even when assessments are abandoned, they are usually replaced with yet another form of assessment; one that is often very similar to the previous version. Many of the failings of the ANAs can be corrected with all relevant stakeholders being willing to actively support and participate in the process.

So even if the ANAs wheels may be misaligned, let us focus our energy on fixing the flaws rather than insisting that we no longer need to drive education improvements based on informed targets.

Sylvia Hannan – Junior Researcher
Tia Linda Zuze – Senior Research Specialist
Vijay Reddy – Executive Director
Andrea Juan – Post doctoral fellow
Catherine Namome- PhD Intern
Education and Skills Development Research Programme
Human Sciences Research Council

* This article appeared in the Times LIVE on 29 October 2015.