Rethinking the matric exams — there is much we can learn from Covid-19

Rethinking the matric exams — there is much we can learn from Covid-19
Matric pupils from Linden High School in Johannesburg sit to write the first matric final examination paper in the school hall on 27 October 2021. (Photo: Gallo Images / Beeld / Deaan Vivier)

Schools spend far too much time preparing students for exams, says Mark Potterton. He calls for different forms of assessment that better prepare students for the world of work and combat structural inequalities.

Covid-19 resulted in an unprecedented disruption to education systems worldwide. Despite this, the education authorities in many countries, including South Africa, forged ahead with year-end examinations for students completing their final year of school. This put untold amounts of stress on students and schools as they raced to complete the year in time.

My argument over the years has always been that we put far too much emphasis on exam results. The National Senior Certificate (NSC) exams are high-stakes exams that act as gatekeepers for too many students. Very few students achieve the results required to pursue higher education or enter the employment market, and passing matric does not necessarily open doors for all school leavers.

The former minister of planning, Trevor Manuel, observed that it takes about seven years for the average black female matriculant to find a job after completing school.

A lot of teaching time is lost to exams. In matric, there are three sets of exams. This translates into about three months of lost teaching time, which forces teachers to race through the curriculum and teach during the school holidays and weekends or after hours to cover the content.

Exams also create anxiety for students. I am reminded of this every morning. On my way to school, I pass a huge billboard advertising over-the-counter medication to help students relax and concentrate. Though most students seem to navigate this stressful time without too much difficulty, for some students the stress is just too much, and the consequences are sometimes ­deadly.

Unmarketable skills

South Africa’s education reforms since the advent of democracy introduced a variety of assessment methods, including coursework, projects, groupwork and other activities.

Despite this, the written examination has still not been dislodged from its apex pedestal, and its weight remains far too great among the array of other possible assessment strategies. The current system is doggedly focused on the NSC exams.

The purpose of these examinations needs to be questioned, especially when employers regularly say that the education system does not provide the skills they are looking for in would-be employees, such as strong writing and presentation skills, or the ability to work in teams or problem-solve. They recommend that students be given more opportunity to make oral presentations and to write in different styles for different audiences. Employers want workers who can think critically.

I am unsure where we are heading with education in South Africa. It appears that with all the pressure placed on the NSC we may continue to follow the worst examples in the high-achieving countries such as Singapore and South Korea.

In 2013, a reporter investigated what he called Gangnam-style tuition in Korea, where parents spend over $30-billion a year on private tuition to help their children to achieve better in high-stakes college entrance exams.

The Korean government has even been forced to bring in a 10pm curfew on hagwon (private learning institutes) to allow children to get to bed earlier.

“Schooling is not stressful,” said one student. “It is the tuition homework that is very stressful.” This student got to bed around midnight on weekdays. Some hagwon owners have longer hours on weekends to circumvent the curfew, and give students more homework or make use of online learning.

Addressing inequality

What has become clear for many experts is that national tests are better at measuring socioeconomic status than academic success. Research on schooling and class has shown that wealthier students have parents who have more time to spend on their children’s academic progress and have more money to pay for additional curriculum support. Students from wealthy families generally have better health and more suitable housing.

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Social inequality and the employment-readiness of poor students cannot be resolved with an exam. Exams are designed to benchmark students who will go on to higher education. A 2017 Statistics South Africa study showed that only about 26% of students who write the NSC go on to university. The study concluded: “In South Africa, poor readiness for post-school education, combined with structural factors such as availability of finances, has an impact on access to post-secondary education.”

Less stressful

Universities and a few schools opted for take-home exams during the pandemic. Research at one university showed clearly that take-home exams were less stressful for both staff and students — 81% of students across the College of Humanities said they experienced less stress and anxiety with take-home exams. Administrative staff also reported a lighter workload than with ­formal sit-down and timed exams.

The research also found that the change to take-home exams, with time periods between 24 hours and five days, was much more inclusive and accessible for students with a wide range of disabilities. More than 70% of students found it easier to compose answers electronically, and students with neurological and physical disabilities reported that take-home exams allowed them to work in accessible, supportive conditions, and to use focusing techniques and rest breaks that were not possible in formal exam conditions.

Staff and students agreed the pandemic had provided the chance to rethink assessment strategies and to tackle inequalities.


Isabel Nisbet and Stuart Shaw, two UK experts on school assessments, recently published a book called Is Assessment Fair? The book examines the fairness of standardised testing in an educational context in which students come from diverse intellectual traditions and ways of thinking.

They argue that standardised tests say less about the student’s ability and more about the distribution of resources to schools. Here in South Africa, the Annual National Assessments were dumped precisely because of public pressure against the perceived unfairness of these tests.

The core value of respect for the dignity and wellbeing of the students being assessed must underpin fair and equitable assessment practices. In the context of years of Covid-19 disruption, an important dimension of respect for ­students is to ensure that the weighting of assessments is  pro­portionate to the emphasis of the curriculum. Such assessments should also consider that many students did not have access to their learning materials or ­guidance.

Canadian assessment experts developed a set of principles for fair assessments that can easily be applied to the South African context. First, examiners must strive to understand and address the personal impact of assessment practices on individual students and their families.

Second, assessments must accommodate the ability, social, cultural and linguistic background of every student.

Third, all members of school communities must challenge indefensible and illogical assessment practices.

Fourth, the frequency, intensity and intrusiveness of assessments must not overwhelm students and their families.

Finally, assessments must not be mistaken for a mechanism to punish inappropriate student behaviour or reward desired ­behaviour.

There are always children who succeed despite difficult circumstances, but perhaps a great deal of unnecessary stress can be eliminated by preparing students for more than exams and reforming the education system so that it can overcome structural inequalities.

We cannot continue with the same system of exams indefinitely. Surely we can come up with new solutions, as we have done during the pandemic. After all, we can’t fatten a pig by simply continuing to weigh it. DM168

Mark Potterton is pre-primary and ­primary principal at Sacred Heart College and has served as the chief operating officer at Umalusi, the South African exams board.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Margaret Jensen says:

    Oh yes this augers well for the future. SA has for too long emphasised academic achievement as the only way to go. We need to find better ways of assessments than exams.

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