The value of systemic testing: speech by Minister Donald Grant to the SA Girls' Schools Association Conference | Western Cape Education Department

The value of systemic testing: speech by Minister Donald Grant to the SA Girls' Schools Association Conference

Good afternoon to you all.

A very warm welcome to the Western Cape and to Stellenbosch specifically.

Ms van Heerden, Ms Slabber, Mr Wolf, special guests, Principals and other delegates - thank you for your kind invitation to address this conference for a second time in my period of office as Minister of Education in the Western Cape. The first time was when you met at Rustenburg Girls' High, a little closer to my home in Newlands. I am delighted to be here today. We are particularly pleased to welcome so many Principals and senior educationalists from outside the Western Cape. I sincerely hope that you are enjoying your time here with us.

Every time I speak at a conference of this nature I am impressed by the calibre of expertise and experience we have in this room, with some of our country's most qualified principals and senior school leaders.

When she opened the Girls' Schools Association Annual Conference [an association of independent girls' schools in the UK] their President - Louise Robinson - spoke about change and the challenges which change poses to schooling. In her thought-provoking address she makes the following observation:

We all know that knowledge is power, and we revere the people who have that knowledge: doctors, lawyers, professors, etc, but in this world of Wikipedia all knowledge is available and accessible to all of us. This means the power-base which the professions held, is crumbling.

I will come back to this thought of Louise Robinson's a little later - but I have a suspicion that on its own it contains enough food for thought for a whole 3 day conference.

As the holder of political office I am very aware of criticism and how much is directed at the field in which we in this venue all operate in one way or another. While I am painfully aware of how much of this criticism is justifiable I am constantly struck by how much of it is ill-founded, uninformed and based on unrealistic expectations. For this reason, I take very seriously reports and assessments which are well-reasoned, clearly argued and constructive. One such recently released report is the First National Report of NEEDU [the National Education and Evaluation and Development Unit] entitled "The State of Literacy Teaching and Learning in the Foundation Phase". Many of you are aware that NEEDU is an independent institution that analyses the state of schools in South Africa and identifies the factors necessary for quality schooling.

I would specifically like to focus on one aspect of this report - one that affects each and every school principal in this room, no matter what the province or status of one's school -and that is the improvement of language and mathematics in our schools.

NEEDU studied 133 schools across all nine provinces and focused on why so many learners are failing to achieve basic literacy and numeracy skills in the Foundation Phase (grades 1 to 3).

The study found that the majority of learners in poor schools start falling behind required literacy and numeracy levels in their first year, and by the time they end the "Foundation Phase" with grade 3, many have effectively dropped out or will fail to keep up with the requirements of the curriculum in their later years.

The report presents a number of conclusions as to why this is happening, including:

  • A large proportion of South African teachers lack subject content knowledge or pedagogical teaching skills.
  • There is on-going slippage between qualifications and competence
  • The under-utlisation of skills within schools themselves and amongst schools and the over-reliance upon education departments and external agencies
  • Teaching and learning time is lost through late coming and absenteeism, by both learners and educators.

For the purposes of my speech today it is useful to refer to two aspects of the report as follows:

  1. The report notes that only two provinces have developed and implemented programmes designed to improve teaching in the phase covered by this report. One is the Literacy and Numeracy Intervention of the WCED and the report states that All participants in the programme - WCED project managers, service providers and participating teachers - are unanimous in the view that the LNI is having a positive impact on both teachers' understanding of teaching literacy and numeracy and on their classroom practices.
  2. The report notes further that it is of great significance to the country as a whole that these two programmes be carefully evaluated in terms of the impact on learner outcomes and the improvement of the teaching of literacy and numeracy.

Perhaps it will be useful to point out that the Western Cape Government identified 10 strategic objectives in its education plan for the province - one of which was specifically the improvement of literacy and numeracy outcomes. The decision was also made to refine and expand our use of systemic testing in the Province.

While clearly any discussion of the systemic testing of literacy and numeracy would look in the results for indications of improvement, from a systems point of view one would also look far wider at how the results have informed changes to things such as classroom practice, appropriate resourcing and the organization of learning in our schools. The results of the testing are not an end in themselves.

However, for the record let me refer briefly to my media release at the time of the publication of the 2012 systemic testing results. At the time - in January of this year - we announced the following:

In October 2012 over 250 000 Grade 3, 6 and 9 learners from 1 421 Public Ordinary and Independent schools in the Western Cape took part in the tests.

We are delighted that the 2012 language and mathematics results have produced improved outcomes in all grades and all subjects.

We have seen improvements in every Grade tested for both language and mathematics.

We are also pleased that each of our education districts has also achieved improvements in every subject in each Grade.

While we are pleased with the improvement there is much work to be done before our learners across the board demonstrate acceptable levels of literacy and numeracy as benchmarked internationally.

That is why these tests are so important to us. Without the use of credible systemic testing of learner outcomes the WCED would not have been in possession of the data upon which to develop its Literacy and Numeracy Intervention.

The key word here is, of course, CREDIBLE. Among the steps we have taken to enhance credibility are the following:

  • The steady expansion of the reach of the tests since their inception in 2002 from some grade 3s to across the board testing of grades 3, 6 and 9
  • The use of internationally recognised compilers of the tests at the universities of Cape town and Pretoria
  • The external administration and marking of the tests

On the basis of your own experience, you will be able to tell that some of the above features set our Western Cape systemic testing apart from the other widely reported assessment mechanism in South Africa - the so-called ANAs. However, we welcome and support the ANAs as providing a number of national benchmarks and, of course, it does test across grades 1 to 6.

I think it is useful also to consider the extent to which there are broader professional implications in the implementation of the sort of systemic testing which we use in this Province. Are there benefits to the system outside the generation of useful data? There are four examples of these broader implications which come to mind immediately, as follows:

  1. Both the testing and the public releasing of the results have broadened and deepened accountability in our school system. No longer does society have to wait for the results of the external Grade 12 - the National Senior Certificate or Matric - examination to gauge the effectiveness of the system. The testing provides an earlier indication in our Primary schools as well as a more regular indicator at key stages of our schooling system. Constructively used this is invaluable information.
  2. The various processes associated with the testing make up a powerful and cost effective teacher development tool. Exemplars are supplied from which teachers are able to determine appropriate standards and learn more about the nature and levels of questions. Feedback indicates that this is producing a more confident and knowledgeable teaching corps in this province.
  3. The proper analysis of the test results also confirmed the importance of the provision of textbooks and readers. This province has as a result committed massive resources to ensuring that these are provided.
  4. The format of the presentation of the results provides each school with a wealth of information about outcomes in other schools per circuit, district and the province which further encourages and strengthens realistic and appropriate school achievement. In addition, the tests scores are analysed for each school in terms of the actual component skills activities involved in the successful mastery of literacy and numeracy. So, for instance, the school will know how well in Grade 6 mathematics each of the following aspects is being taught and understood:
    • Numbers, operations and relationships
    • Patterns, functions and algebra
    • Space and shape
    • Measurement
    • Data handling

There can be no doubt that the intelligent use of systemic testing by the WCED has played a significant part in the steady and we believe sustainable improvement we have started to witness in outcomes of the learners in our schools.

District officials, Principals, teachers and members of the public are better informed and equipped to play their appropriate role in teaching, assisting and supporting our young people to achieve their potential and to take up useful, constructive roles in society.

The NEEDU report confirms this, and I have no doubt that the contents of this report and the report's clear recommendations will be the subject of much debate over the next few months.

I hope that today, I can spark some debate right here. Many of the Western Cape principals are familiar with such testing and strategies and I would be pleased to see this gathering as an opportunity to share best practice or share critical advice.

As mentioned earlier, we have a wealth of expertise in this very room and I personally see no better opportunity than to share such debate than right here.

In closing, I want to return to the Presidential opening address from Louise Robinson which I referred to earlier. After her concern about the undermining of the professional influence, of amongst others, teachers, she closed her speech with the following:

"Governments change, ministers change, even examination specifications change, but what remains are children, schools and teachers. We must remember that teaching is the best vocation in the world. I love the quote from Donald Quinn "If a doctor, lawyer or dentist had 40 people in the office at one time, all of whom have different needs, and some of them didn't want to be there and were causing trouble, and without assistance, and the doctor, lawyer or dentist had to treat them all with professional excellence and care for some 9 months, then there might be some conception of a class teacher's job".

In the midst of change and uncertainty, the good teacher is a constant.

Thank you.