Why Declining National Assessment Standards Hurts Kids

You would think that lowering the standards of final national exams in South Africa would be good news for kids. Easier exams mean more of them pass more easily. And top students can clean up.

You would be wrong.

Easier examinations always equates to an imbalance between higher and lower order questions – with the latter dominating, and the former being heavily watered down. Kids are less likely to be asked to showcase their ability to think and assess and analyse, and more likely to be asked to regurgitate what they remember.

This creates schools which gear themselves towards getting their students to do well in the final exams. Ostensibly to ‘give kids a better chance at a successful future’. And as such they become rote memorization factories. This inclination towards inculcating the ability to remember facts above all else then filters down through the other grades – because the skill of force-feeding facts into young people’s brains needs to be rigorously trained from day one of high school. Kids would much rather think and be creative – and they need to be trained to forego this inclination.

Schools become heartless, soulless places where assessments matter more than personal growth, and where canned content squashes independent thinking.

And yes, this does mean more kids pass. It also means that those who can cram the most into their short-term memories can do exceedingly well. But it also means that kids who have been encouraged to think critically, independently and creatively are considered mediocre. A fact which is compounded by the awful truth that markers of these final exams are less and less inclined to reward these students’ insights. (Perhaps this is because they themselves are increasingly likely to be the product of this kind of education. I know for a fact that some of our exams are being stripped of their higher order components exactly because the markers cannot mark these questions.)

Most dangerously, the lowering of assessment standards by the national education authority means that we are sending thousands of kids on to tertiary education who are woefully under-prepared. It’s no wonder that most Universities these days have their own entrance exams. (Which consist solely of problem-solving tasks requiring independent thinking.)

(Interestingly, the policy documents put forward by the government state that teachers should be developing critical, creative and independent thinking. Yet in the exams they set, fewer and fewer of these skills are actually required.)

Declining standards may mean more kids pass, but it also means that this school-leaving certificate is not worth the paper it’s printed on. And teachers are mostly okay with this because from the outside, it seems that they’re doing their jobs. But it also means that many of our best thinkers never shine as they should. We are raising a generation of mediocre thinkers.

All because of one set of standardised exams which are badly set and poorly marked.

And I haven’t even begun to talk about the horrors of standardised assessments as a concept in the first place. That every kid from every background and every circumstance in South Africa, each with their own unique talents and passions, have their knowledge evaluated by the same standardized examination smacks social engineering at best, and cruel malpractice at worst.

Alternative Conspiracist’s Conclusion

Could it be that the government doesn’t want our people to be too well-educated? On the surface, this seems patently ridiculous. Surely the State wants to encourage smart entrepreneurial thinkers in order to grow the economy? Surely this is the way to get people earning money and raising living standards? But what if it isn’t? What if the Government intentionally wants to keep the populace dumb and easier to control? What if they’re afraid of a generation which becomes dissatisfied with the ruling party?

What better way to do this than to keep them from thinking?

Your thoughts?




  1. Excellent post – and such a tragedy too. Until we get away from standardisation we won’t fundamentally transform opportunity for our students. Equity of opportunity also plays a huge part as well. It’s no surprise (at least according to Dianne Ravitch, Andy Hargreaves and Pasi Sahlberg) that the most successful national education systems are those which have rejected standardised testing completely. Education is a different commodity to any other; you don’t start from a common base line. If we have to measure, let’s look at how much value years of education add…

    One other factor behind successful education systems…as a rule, they don’t have private education ( apart from a few foreign national schools). This ensures true equity of education opportunity and long term, drives up standards through better standards of teacher training and professionalism and peer-assisted learning (to name just two). However, it would take a brave (or stupid) political party to abolish private education here in SA! But playing devils advocate, maybe they might consider the option mooted by some of increasing taxation on private education fee revenue, with the funds going to help the state system….
    Some will say that this will force up fees pricing some out of the market and back into the state system…. But maybe that would lead to increased parental pressure on politicians to do more to fix the state system?

    There’s a thought.


  2. What do I think??? Is this a trick question? What page of the textbook is it on?

    Or, to rephrase, I think I agree with everything you’ve said, especially the part about overlooking the really creative and independent thinkers. And I think your conspiracy theory is correct. At the same time, we’ve entered a new era of free thinking and unfettered knowledge. Those independent and creative thinkers (always a rarity) will be able to find their learning outside of schools. We don’t have the Chinese internet clampdown in South Africa (yet). And free-thinkers have a way of being heard. And they CAN become influential. So I suspect the conspiracy will be broken.

    But our country will become nearly crippled on the process. Because the stupider our populace gets, the less wealth we are able to generate, the less innovation we are able to generate, the more the corrupticians need to source their thievery elsewhere, the more broken the country becomes. We are currently a target for a Chinese takeover, just like Zimbabwe. The independent thinkers MUST rise. The private schools MUST create dissenters. Powerful, passionate, capable dissenters.

    No pressure on you, Sean. But… Uh… Teach like our lives depend on it. Cos they do.


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