The Big Read: Politicos get 'F' for their tests
The fuss surrounding the Annual National Assessments is, on the one hand, a case study in the political mismanagement of an educational problem.
On the other hand, it brought to light one of the most meaningless activities on the school calendar.
It is a saying familiar to measurement specialists - you cannot fatten a pig by measuring it. Why would any sensible government subject schools to assessments that have become corrupted simply by virtue of repetition?
This is how it works. All over the world, when governments introduce high-stakes assessment in a school system, it changes the ways in which teaching and learning are done. In another measurement analogy, the assessment tail begins to wag the educational dog.
Schools, like any rational organisations, tend to put on their best face, especially when assessment results are made public and those institutions are ranked on performance.
When public shaming is part of the political calculus for a department of education, the stakes increase enormously and gross distortion occurs. There is a large volume of research to prove this for several countries.
Now imagine you are a disadvantaged school and there have been no significant interventions for educational improvement at your school.
Regardless, the annual assessments come rolling around as usual and, despite the lack of opportunity, you will be publicly shamed unless results improve.
So you do the unthinkable - you try to spike the results. Before long the teachers are spending inordinate amounts of time "prepping" for the ANAs rather than doing the hard work of teaching to ensure every pupil meets a reasonable standard of competence.
In this respect, the primary school teachers are doing exactly what Grade 12 teachers have done for years - preparing young people for examinations rather than for deep and meaningful learning in the subject.
The ANAs have become meaningless. They are expensive, time-consuming and burdensome for already stressed teachers.
ANAs distort the purposes of education at the bottom end of the system because of the misguided notion that you can test a system into high performance or compliance with external rules.
Unfortunately, the Department of Basic Education has painted itself into a corner. It is not only Sadtu that rejects the ANA schedule that the minister insists on; all the teacher unions, including the most conservative ones, do as well.
This is where political ego needs to back down in the interest of stability in the system as we move towards the end of the school year.
I have always argued that the government, through the department, needed to stamp its authority on the school system rather than let the majority union so frequently disrupt the education of poor children.
I stand by that position. But this is the wrong issue on which to impose governmental authority for the reason that another round of ANAs makes no sense at all.
This is Leadership 101. If you are going to take on a fight make sure it's worth the effort and make sure you're going to win. Neither of these criteria apply; the department will lose and the fight is senseless.
In the meantime, confusion reigns and that suits the unions.
Who will administer and mark the tests should many of the teachers refuse?
What will be the impact of the December test schedule on the other examinations? What will be the impact of this fiasco on the morale and motivation of dedicated teachers who simply cannot cope?
And what message will this send to parents and the long-suffering education public when, once again, the school system operates in turmoil and uncertainty?
A long-term solution is needed. Do the ANAs in three-year cycles and in-between the testing years make sure there is something worth testing? That is, make sure the educational interventions in the poorest primary schools are substantive and durable over time. Then test whether learners can read and write at the grade level.
There is value in diagnostic assessments, but only when it delivers usable information based on the fact that something different happened to improve teaching and learning since the last assessment.
More than ever, this stalemate requires leadership at the top. Your guess is as good as mine whether leaders in government or in the unions, this time round, have the capacity to act in the interests of the children.