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Divergent views on national assessments

- By Craig Pournara

The Marang Centre for Maths and Science Education hosted a workshop and discussion entitled Grade 9 Maths ANA: Can we make it count? on 19 March 2015. The Grade 9 Maths Annual National Assessment (ANA) has become an issue of growing concern, with national average marks of 12.7%, 13.9% and 10.8% in 2012, 2013 and 2014 respectively. The purpose of the workshop was to initiate a conversation between teachers, policy makers and academics on an issue of widespread interest in the mathematics education community.

Over 100 people attended the event, representing the public school sector, universities, the Gauteng Department of Education, the Department of Basic Education (DBE), as well as outreach programmes, NGOs and funders.

A key feature of the afternoon was the lively audience discussion during which a wide range of opinions were expressed. Many teachers agreed that the ANA is a source of significant stress and frustration for them, particularly its timing in September. Moreover, the ANA results are not always an accurate indication of how learners are coping with mathematics. Mr Takalani Nemukula, Head of the Maths Department at Kwabhekilanga Secondary School, shared that although his school’s ANA results had been very disappointing, the school had a record number of four classes taking Mathematics in Grade 10 in 2015.

Some said that preparation for the ANA is both time-consuming and interferes with the work programme for the year. By contrast, Ms Dina Goncalves, principal of Jeppe High School for Girls, said that her school does not do any dedicated preparation for the ANA. She also noted that while one of the goals of the ANA is to provide parents with an indication of how their children are coping, this is a central function of all schools anyway. 

Dr Craig Pournara, senior lecturer in Mathematics Education at Wits, reported on the analysis that he and colleagues at Wits have done of the 2012, 2013 and 2014 Grade 9 ANA tests. Based on an analysis of cognitive levels and levels of difficulty, he showed that there is evidence to suggest that the 2014 test was more difficult than the previous two years, which may explain the drop in the 2014 average. He compared a geometry question from the ANA with a question from the 2014 Grade 12 NSC Paper 2 and suggested that, relatively speaking, the Grade 9 question was more demanding than the Grade 12 question. 

Mr Qetelo Moloi, Director of National Assessment in the DBE, acknowledged that there are still many concerns over the Grade 9 Maths ANA. He expressed his appreciated for the engaging and honest discussions that had taken place during the afternoon. He reminded the audience that the Maths ANAs were introduced in response to South Africa’ s very poor performance in international comparative assessments, and that the ANAs are our home-grown assessments, and still in their infancy. The primary goal of the ANA is to support teaching and learning in previously disadvantaged schools, and while the results are distressing particularly in Grade 9 Mathematics, we have to “look ourselves in the mirror and see our blemishes if we are to improve”.

In reflecting on the issues raised, Mathematics Education Professor Jill Adler picked up on Mr Moloi’s metaphors of the infancy of the ANAs, appreciating that new initiatives must have time to grow, but acknowledged the this ‘baby’ was causing a lot of stress – and asked the department to take this into account, and work on ways that the ‘baby’ could grow without the extensive distress for many mathematics teachers and their schools.  Similarly, while we need to look in the mirror and see our blemishes, they won’t go away unless we also understand and work with what is causing them. In other words, more testing, in itself, will not make the blemishes disappear, said Adler.