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Part of my job as a teacher educator is to visit student teachers during their teaching practice. I visit schools across the range from private schools to rural schools, mostly secondary schools, but occasionally a primary school.
Like all teacher educators, I have a unique opportunity to experience a cross-section of schools in KwaZulu-Natal, to see first-hand what is happening in the schools.
This year, our second period of teaching practice coincides with the textbook crisis in Limpopo, something we watched with disbelief as the story unfolded.
We know from our collective years of school visits that many schools in the country have functioned for years without textbooks.
Sometimes the textbooks are stored in a storeroom, unused and unwanted, but many times there are no textbooks in the school. Teachers cope by writing subject matter or problems on the chalkboard, or by photocopying selected pages from a favourite textbook. Why is the non-delivery of textbooks treated as a crisis only this year and only in Limpopo province?
The year 2012 is a special one in education because it is the first year of the Caps (Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement) in grades 1-3 and Grade 10. Teachers have to approach their teaching differently (outcomes-based education has fallen out of favour) and the subject matter has changed in some subjects.
But most significantly, national assessments will be used to monitor the progress of our children.
Teachers will be held accountable if pupils continue to perform at the dismal levels seen in last year's annual national assessments.
Textbooks will help teachers to cope, because they have been written for the Caps curriculum, and the selection process for the national list has been exceptionally rigorous. If a teacher follows one of the new textbooks, he or she will certainly teach to the Caps curriculum.
With this context in mind, I looked at the results of KZN pupils in the 2012 Grade 10 mid-year exams in four subjects.
I focused on the mathematics results, because this is such an important gateway subject, allowing access to so many life opportunities.
What I saw can only be described as a crisis. I saw the results for 460 schools and 27 213 Grade 10 pupils who wrote mathematics. Only 7 612 (28 percent) of those children passed mathematics at the 30 percent level. That means that 72 percent of the pupils in those 460 schools failed the exam.
Before going further, I need to say that in 2011, 1 701 schools in KZN wrote the National Senior Certificate exams. The 460 schools reported here represent 27 percent of all the secondary schools in the province.
The 2011 matric pass rates for these schools indicate that they are "high-risk" schools, and therefore not representative of the whole province. Nevertheless, so many pupils attend these schools that the results warrant comment.
Professor Jonathan Jansen has criticised the pass mark of 30 percent for all subjects except languages.
He advocates raising the pass mark to 50 percent - a level that I believe is too high. If the pass mark was increased to a modest 40 percent, how many of these 27 213 Grade 10 mathematics pupils would have passed? The answer - only 3 410, or 12.5 percent.
The failure rate would increase to 87.5 percent. The country simply cannot allow that to happen.
It is possible that the examinations were too difficult for Grade 10. After all, this is the first year that we have implemented Caps, so standards-setting is quite a challenge.
One way of gauging the level of difficulty is to compare the marks with previous years (not possible because this is the first year of Caps) or looking at the marks of historically well-performing schools.
Again, this is not possible because none of those schools is included in the data I received.
A well-designed assessment task has a spread of marks from lowest to highest. If the test is too difficult, the marks are clustered around the bottom end of the scale.
If the test is too easy, the marks are clustered around the top end of the scale. In a subject like mathematics, a small percentage of pupils should be able to score 100 percent.
The marks I saw were clustered at the bottom end of the range. I looked for high marks, and found that only 76 pupils out of the total of 27 213 scored 80-100 percent.
Only 25 of the 460 schools had even one pupil who scored a distinction. The distinctions were not scattered over the schools, in fact, just three schools contributed 47 of the 76 distinctions.
We would be justified in concluding that the examiners are out of touch with what Grade 10 pupils are capable of doing in mathematics.
But one school on the list stands out - 37 children wrote mathematics, 32 passed, and 14 obtained distinctions.
Something special is happening here, something that indicates that the examination was not beyond the reach of Grade 10 children.
But one school may indeed be an exception.
We need information from historically well-performing schools, which are not included on my list.
If even 10 schools have done well, we will know that the exam was not too difficult.
Given equal opportunities, all Grade 10 pupils have equivalent chances of succeeding in mathematics. That means all our schools must have teachers who are qualified in the subjects they are teaching. They must have textbooks for all the subjects they offer. They must start on time every day, and have a timetable that teachers and pupils follow every day. They must provide a safe and supportive learning environment.
I don't believe Caps is to blame for the poor results we see in these 460 schools. The crisis is not only in Limpopo and it's about much more than textbooks. It's about life chances and how we do everything possible to enable all pupils to achieve a good basic education.
* Dr Edith Dempster is a senior lecturer in the School of Education, University of KwaZulu-Natal.