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DISTRESS SIGNALS, PART TWO

UCT Online High School — ‘shocking marking’ after grading outsourced

UCT Online High School — ‘shocking marking’ after grading outsourced
Illustrative image | Robert Paddock, CEO of Valenture Institute. (Photo: Supplied) | Gallo Images / The Times / Moeletsi Mabe | Gallo Images | Lefty Shivambu | Sydney Seshibedi | Gallo Images

UCT Online High School opened its virtual doors in January 2022, promising to be a game-changer for basic education in South Africa and capitalising on our desire to make education more inclusive. Today, the bubble of praise and excitement has somewhat deflated, with parents and teachers raising alarm about the myriad problems experienced at the school in its first year of operation. The fundamental problem, they say, is that the school has failed to deliver on many of its selling points, resisting any internal and external scrutiny of how its students are faring, and offering a product which has negatively affected students.

 

Read our entire coverage of the UCT Online High School:

 

A mere month into the current school year, complaints began to emerge from guardians at UCT Online High School over the grading of assessments. While several parents described seeing a stark decline in their children’s academic achievement, they say they were struggling to get clarity from the school about who was conducting the marking. A Daily Maverick investigation has found that the school has, for the duration of the 2022 academic year and unbeknown to guardians, outsourced the grading of assessments and examinations to the third-party, private tutoring company Teach Me 2.

In interviews with Daily Maverick over the past months, several parents raised concerns about learners’ dismal academic performance, and teachers described the “substandard marking” as being among the biggest issues at the school.

“It directly affects the grades of students, their student experience and our ability to be able to determine if or where they are struggling,” said one UCTOHS teacher.

Questions over marking

On 27 November 2022, City Press published a report revealing allegations of poor academic performance at home schools, notably at UCTOHS. City Press, in its report by Liesl Peyper, wrote that to its knowledge the school has about 600 staff members – a third of them teachers, a third of them support coaches, and “another third who mark papers.” This seems to suggest that assessments are marked internally by company employees.

However, information contained in the Learner Handbook available on the school’s website contradicts this understanding, and states: “UCT Online High School does not mark examinations for subjects and programmes. Unless stipulated otherwise, all examinations are marked by the examination body for the subjects and programme a learner is enrolled for.”

While there appears to be no additional information provided on the school’s website about who exactly marks its pupils’ work, Daily Maverick has uncovered that UCTOHS outsources the marking of majority of its assessments and examinations to an external, third-party company – the private tutoring group, Teach Me 2.

In response to questions from Daily Maverick, Teach Me 2 COO, Daniel van Zuydam said Teach Me 2 was “a contracted third-party service provider” until the end of the year, at which time UCTOHS will be taking over management of marking.

Several teachers told us that the school has withheld this information from guardians. When questions from parents began to arise as early as February about the nature and quality of the marking, company employees were allegedly instructed to refrain from telling parents that marking was conducted by Teach Me 2, and teachers say they were told to give a canned response that it was carried out by a “dedicated marking team”.

In our interviews with parents, it was clear that they did not know about the school’s use of Teach Me 2 markers. Some parents told Daily Maverick that they had questioned who was marking their childrens’ work but had received no response, others simply regurgitated the line given to teachers to provide to parents, and others assumed it had been teachers all along because they claimed they had not been told otherwise.

In interviews, both parents and teachers described the standard of marking as “appalling”. Their claims are supported by multiple complaints Daily Maverick has seen from guardians who have posted on a private UCTOHS Guardian Facebook group, and the public review platform, Hello Peter.

Two of the teachers who spoke to us on condition of anonymity said that when they were asked to moderate a proportion of the assessments first graded by Teach Me 2, in many cases there was as much as a 30% discrepancy between the mark awarded by Teach Me 2 and the mark subsequently awarded by the teacher.

“Teach Me 2 cannot mark,” one teacher said. “The kids are being robbed, left, right and centre.”

‘Shockingly inaccurate’

Another teacher said: “Children are receiving wildly inaccurate marks — off by 40%. Shockingly inaccurate… There is not a child in this school whose marks can be trusted. Not every child has had all of their assessments moderated and checked because the school doesn’t have capacity for that.”

These claims from teachers closely tally with other allegations from parents who say that after receiving a re-mark, their child’s grade has risen substantially.

“When you query it, sometimes the mark goes up, which shows they aren’t marking correctly. And sometimes [the school says] they can’t do a re-mark because it’s past the time period of re-marking,” said Zayaan Isaacs, whose son is in Grade 8 at UCTOHS.

“But if you’re only getting your first term results in the third term, how on earth are you supposed to apply for the re-marking within the given timeframe?”

In response to these allegations, Teach Me 2’s Zuydam said: “To date, we’ve marked over 500,000 submissions from almost 5,000 learners. Within that volume there was undoubtedly a small fraction of submissions that would have eluded moderation and, unfortunately, not been up to standard. We investigate every query and are working closely with UCTOHS to continuously refine the pool of markers and the marking process to ensure a fair application of assessment practices for learners.”

Daily Maverick sent a detailed list of queries to UCTOHS asking about its use of Teach Me 2 markers, and requesting its response to the allegations that the school had refrained from communicating this information to guardians.

UCTOHS confirmed that “first-level marking is conducted by Teach Me 2”. The school did not respond to the claims contained in this article that it had repeatedly withheld this information from parents.

On its use of Teach Me 2 markers, UCTOHS said: “We work with a number of partner organisations in providing the full array of services that are essential for providing quality teaching and learning online and at scale. These include Teach Me 2, which engages and trains our first-level markers for internally assessed tests and assessments that cannot be automated.

“Following this initial marking stage, all first-level assessments are returned to us, are reviewed, and a proportion are moderated by our fully-qualified teachers. All end-of-year examinations are graded by qualified teachers.

“In this, our system of assessment is analogous to the systems used by universities, where first year assignments are graded by graduate teaching assistants and then moderated by Faculty. This is not a third-party outsourced arrangement, as alleged.”

The school claimed that its use of “first-level markers” provided the opportunity for teachers “to spend their time engaging in high impact learning interventions”.

Daily Maverick understands that following the outcry from guardians about the quality of the marking and poor learner performance, the school had communicated with parents that all of the end-of-year exams would be graded internally by its teachers. However, teachers have told Daily Maverick that they are only marking about 10% of exam scripts, and that Teach Me 2 is grading the majority of the end-of-year examination papers.

“We are marking a fraction – a tiny fraction. There is a huge lack of transparency from the school about the end-of-year marking,” said one teacher.

According to UCTOHS, it is “currently in the process of fully internalising functions that have previously been supplied by Teach Me 2, and while we had hoped to fully internalise the function by the end of year exams, the scale of exam marking necessitated a blended approach.”

“On 17 November, we wrote to all parents and guardians, setting out in detail arrangements for the end-of-year examinations. Specifically, we said: ‘In the spirit of continual improvement, we have identified a number of key enhancements that we are currently phasing in. These include internalising all marking for 2023. This means that exam marking will be done by our teachers and our dedicated markers (who are all qualified teachers) throughout the exam period.

“Following this, we will apply our post-moderation processes prior to finalising grades for this set of exams. By internalising this function in 2023, we will be directly managing all marking processes by a network of part-time, fully-qualified teachers, who will provide the first-level marking.”

In response to Daily Maverick, Zuydam explained that Teach Me 2’s markers are divided into two categories:

  • Type A Markers who are teachers registered with the South African Council for Educators (SACE) or are teachers in training who meet the requirements to register with the SACE, which means having completed a B.Ed or PGCE and showing appropriate teaching experience; and
  • Type B Markers who are people who have achieved a minimum of 80% in matric for the subject that they wish to mark.

According to Zuydam, both Type A and Type B Markers mark UCT’s School Based Assessments and other tests.

But “only Type A Markers are assigned to mark exams,” he said.

In interviews with Daily Maverick, several teachers said that while the school has claimed that the end-of-year papers are being graded by qualified teachers at Teach Me 2, there has been no clarity given on whether the markers are subject specialists in the subjects they are grading. This means that – even if the markers are qualified teachers – if a paper isn’t being graded by a teacher who specialises in that subject, it could be the case that one has English teachers marking Maths papers.

The teachers who spoke to Daily Maverick hold the view that many assessments and examinations have not been graded by specialists in that subject, considering the marking is as poor as it is.

When Daily Maverick queried this with Teach M 2, Zuydam responded: “Type A Markers are allocated marking in their specialist subject(s) the vast majority of the time. The exception would be in times of extreme surge where we allocate spill-over marking to a pool of reliable Type A Markers who mark outside of their specialist subject(s).”

“All markers mark subject to the memos provided by UCT Online High School,” he added.

When asked by Daily Maverick what is the case for the school’s end-of-year exams – if all the Type A Markers are marking the subjects that they specialise in, and if not, how many exam papers are not being graded by subject specialists – Zuydam said: “All UCT Online High School’s end-of-year exams are heavily moderated and at the moment the moderation has a close to 80% error free rate.

“For those that have errors, minor corrections and comments are sent back to the Type A Markers for re-marking which is common in any moderation scenario. It is under those conditions that the Type A Markers are allocated work predominantly in their specialist subjects and occasionally outside of that.”

***

When Daily Maverick requested comment from the University of Cape Town on the allegations contained in this article, UCT spokesperson Elijah Moholola said the university was aware of “a few issues raised around the UCT Online High School” but that over 90% of the feedback has been “overwhelmingly positive”.

“For an entity that has been in existence for just over a year, this positive feedback is confirmation that UCTOHS is on the right track, while the challenges can only serve to get the school to improve and become even better. There is no doubt that any newly set up entity will never be perfect in all ways in the first year of operation,” said Moholola.

UCTOHS also maintained that the complaints from guardians about grades are few and far between, saying “it is the case that a comparatively small number of parents and guardians have raised concerns about the specific grades awarded to their learners.”

While both the university and school have claimed that the complaints from guardians about grades are not widespread, the teachers and guardians Daily Maverick spoke to told a very different story. Teachers described receiving multiple complaints from “angry and concerned parents” about their child’s poor grades, and the lack of support from the school.

In interviews, teachers for subjects in higher grades such as Grade 10 and 11 said that, based on how their students’ marks look, they couldn’t see how their students would be accepted into a university.

All of the parents we spoke to told us that they had seen a substantial drop in their children’s marks since moving to UCTOHS. These claims are supported by multiple comments from guardians Daily Maverick has seen on the private UCTOHS Guardian Facebook group. Additionally, Daily Maverick has seen the report cards of several students which reflect similar dismal academic outcomes.

“There’s been a massive change in her marks. She’s not your A student that’s going to get 90%, but she’s failed every term, which is shocking. She’s never failed a term, subject, a year, before,” said Lee-Ann van Wyk, whose daughter is in Grade 8 at UCTOHS.

“I’m not hopeful that she’s going to pass the year.”

Speaking to Daily Maverick, Wendy Singo, whose son is also in Grade 8 at the school, said: “I have made [the] biggest mistake of my life while trying to make my son’s future to be bright by enrolling him to UCTOHS – a child who has never once in his life failed a grade – with the hope that he will excel even more based on the methodology they have, but instead failing drastically for that matter.”

Tessa Idrees, whose son is in Grade 8 at UCTOHS, said “we as parents feel we have failed our son this year, but I have constantly been trying to sort this out with UCTOHS and everything just goes in a circle. You don’t get anywhere and the problem doesn’t get taken seriously.”

When asked by Daily Maverick what its pass rate is, UCTOHS said that its pass rates and the proportion of learners promoted, granted progression or required to repeat a grade, would only be known once the examinations and examination moderation is complete.

“It is also not common practice to publish pass rates, outside of the matric results. With our first group of Grade 12s starting in 2023, we would then look to publishing any result, per the industry standard.”

In interviews with Daily Maverick, among parents’ biggest gripe was the lack of communication from the school on how their children were faring. Many said the only indication that their children were performing poorly was from the grades reflected on report cards, when they eventually arrived.

“There was no communication from the support coaches or school that anything was wrong, so as a parent you keep assuming that everything’s fine,” said Singo.

***

The student report cards that Daily Maverick has seen show that for several subjects the children had received 0%. From conversations with teachers, and from the comments that Daily Maverick has seen from parents online, this is an issue experienced by many learners at the school.

In the words of one teacher: “I’m sitting with the majority of my class – which is more than 500 kids – who have 0% for [their subject] for last term.”

Daily Maverick understands that this was often the result of learners submitting incorrect documents for School Based Assessments (SBAs), but that the school’s strict resubmission policy allows for only one resubmission per term for all subjects. If there was only one SBA in a term, and it was not submitted or was submitted incorrectly, the mark awarded would have been zero. Even if other informal assessments were submitted, the SBA marks are the only marks that count towards their reports.

When children are unable to submit for reasons beyond their control such as load shedding, WiFi issues or technical glitches, they are then automatically given zero, and parents Daily Maverick spoke to have claimed that the process of querying or rectifying this issue is complicated and generally never resolved.

Teachers who spoke to Daily Maverick claimed that the company’s strict policies around resubmission do not take into account any submission issues that may be beyond children’s control, or cases where children have accidentally submitted the wrong assessment.

“These are not adults we’re dealing with, they’re children,” said one teacher. “A lot of them also struggle with the digital platform.”

When Van Wyk received her daughter’s term 3 report card in November she was shocked to see that for two of her subjects she had received 0%. “I don’t understand why, if she uploaded her SBAs,” she said.

“Just trying to navigate that space to see how she got zero or where she went wrong – you can’t find that, and it’s so difficult. And the burden is placed on the parent to check-up on the schooling,” she said.

UCTOHS claims to have provided appropriate opportunities for learners and guardians to rectify incorrect or non-submissions – “including a two-week submission window here at the end of the year to resubmit” – with 50% of its learners having successfully used these opportunities to upload all their scripts.

“Many cases have been successfully resolved and, where there are extenuating circumstances, learners, parents and guardians will have the opportunity of appealing the final outcomes for their year once all grades have been fully moderated and assembled in end-of-year reports,” it said.

***

Following the publication of the City Press article, UCTOHS has publicly defended how its learners are fairing, issuing a statement claiming that the City Press report “contains significant inaccuracies, misrepresentations and omissions”.

Curiously, in the school’s attempt to “put the record straight”, because the detail “matters in a world of misinformation”, it did not rebut, correct, nor comment on City Press’ inaccurate reporting of staff markers. Again, the institution kept mum on its use of Teach Me 2 markers. It is worth noting briefly, though, that the school did say it will be internalising all marking and moderation from 2023, so that it can “implement stronger quality controls.”

Additionally, in UCTOHS’s statement on 30 November, the school makes a point of including its response to questions from City Press about an exodus of learners from the school and the reasons given for their leave. This response was omitted from the City Press article, and reads:

“The retention rate for our learners through the 2022 school year has been 80%. The majority of learners who withdrew during 2022 (61% of those who left) did so because they felt either that online schooling was not right for them or because they had found it difficult to adapt to the online learning environment. Within this group, explanations included the difficulty of keeping motivated while working online and the need for close learner supervision and one-to-one guidance. 

“Some learners in this category also left because we have introduced a more structured term system and they had wanted the freedom to set their own pace throughout the school year. 6% of those who withdrew did so because they wanted the more social environment of a traditional school, and 6% left because they were unhappy with the workload expected of them, their progress through the year and their examination results. 13% of those who withdrew had been accepted into another school, and the remaining 24% left because they could not afford the school fees. 80% of our learners are expected to complete the school year and return in 2023.”

Those who spoke to Daily Maverick over the past months claimed that scores of learners were leaving the school. As a result, Daily Maverick, on 29 November asked UCTOHS what its dropout rate was. The school’s response to us on 1 December – a day after the institution publicly slammed City Press for inaccurate reporting – is as follows:

“The retention rate for our learners through the 2022 school year has been 81%. Only 5% of those who have withdrawn stated academic dissatisfaction as their primary reason for leaving the school. The majority of learners who withdrew during 2022 (60% of those who left) did so because they felt either that online schooling was not right for them or because they had found it difficult to adapt to the online learning environment. 

“Within this group, explanations included the difficulty of keeping motivated while working online and the need for close learner supervision and one-to-one guidance. Some learners in this category also left because we have introduced a more structured term system and they had wanted the freedom to set their own pace throughout the school year. A further 14% of those who withdrew were accepted into a different school, and the remaining 21% are distributed among smaller categories such as socio-emotional reasons, home environment and not disclosed.”

Although these percentages differ – which brings into question their accuracy – in our rendering, about 20% of UCTOHS’s learners have left the institution since it opened on 10 January 2022. In interviews with Daily Maverick, some parents said they had wanted to remove their children from the school soon after issues began to arise, but could not get them into other schools.

“I do feel like I failed as a parent. But, also, when I tried to reach out to schools in the first term, nobody could accommodate [my child] because there was just no space for Grade 8,” said Van Wyk.

“We just knew we had to push through for the year.” DM

Read our entire coverage of the UCT Online High School:

In response to Daily Maverick’s questions, UCT Online High School requested that we include all of the information it provided. We have included it as a PDF below because we feel it is important for the public to be informed about all of the allegations Daily Maverick put to the institution, and its respective responses. Additionally, UCT Online High School denied some of Daily Maverick’s findings. We stand by our reporting. 

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Bill Gild says:

    It seems to me that yet another of Phakeng’s “brain”-waves has hit another “real” breakwater.

  • Bill Gild says:

    Given UCT’s wokeness, the following questions need to be asked:

    1. How diverse is this “school”;
    2. Does it reflect the demographics of the country;
    3. How transformed is the curriculum; and
    4. How do the above apply to the teachers?

  • Lesley Young says:

    Zuydam “…over [i.e. more than] 500,000 submissions from almost [i.e. less than] 5,000 learners …” [ my bracket insertions]. That means each learner made [at least] 100 submissions each. Really!!! Or do I need to go back to school?

  • Ed Rybicki says:

    Given that the whole package was sprung on the greater UCT community without any lead-in, AND it was stated that UCT staff would be available to teach in the school, I would be VERY interested to read of just who at UCT was involved in setting it up – and who gets paid. Very obscure at present.

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