IEB - Assessment Matters

Why does assessment matter?

The IEB has a by-line ‘Assessment matters’. The reason for this is twofold:  we deal with matters of assessment and we believe that assessment matters. The natural question then is why does assessment matter?

Often external examinations are criticised because it is felt that they encourage rote learning on the part of the learner and ‘drill and practice’ exercises on the part of the teacher.  More importantly, this kind of practice is often highly rewarded in examinations where the kinds of questions that are set require a mechanical repetition of material, opinions or skills, rehearsed and practiced during the year, in preparation for the examination.   Universities complain that learners reach them with very good results from their school experience but without a real understanding of the meaning or significance of particular concepts in a learning area.  

The IEB believes that assessment has a direct impact on teaching and hence, learning. For this reason, the way a question is asked matters because the way a question is asked will either ‘open’ up the mind of learner to explore different ways of seeing and understanding or close down a learner’s mind to focus on the ‘right’ answer.  Clearly, there is a time and place for each approach and a good assessment instrument provides a balance.

A learner who has mastered the content of their subject and can produce lists of facts and data on demands will in all likelihood achieve a reasonable mark.  However if they intend to succeed in their careers following school, they will need to do more; they will need to understand the origins of this information, its implications and applications in real-life contexts.  They will need to think about issues, apply their learnt knowledge in new situations and discuss options in solving problems. Learners will  also be encouraged to form opinions about issues relevant to different subjects and be expected to justify their opinions using sound principles

The IEB actively strives to set assessments that test learners’ understanding not only of what information applies in a certain circumstance but also of how and why that specific knowledge is applied, to obtain a desired set of outcomes.  In such questions it is not enough for a learner to have learnt the material “off-by-heart”; they will need to have understood it well enough to engage with those questions that probe their understanding and encourage a critical engagement with pertinent issues. 

Clearly this approach in assessment has an effect on how teachers approach their teaching. If the teachers know that the IEB examination will require that learners consider issues for themselves, that they analyse situations and evaluate options, that they provide an unrehearsed response that they themselves have developed and can substantiate, they will from the outset approach their teaching with this in mind. They will ask questions that probe understanding during class; they will encourage learners to offer opinions and substantiate them in class;  they will guide learners in the processes of debate and positive engagement with the opinions of others;  they will explore flaws in reasoning and encourage a development of crucial and constructive engagement with issues, both orally and in writing.  This strategy creates a more rounded learner with an ability to apply acquired knowledge in different scenarios and through the process of analysis and deduction, provide an answer that conforms to principles of clear logical thought,  that is understood by the learner each step of the way and is communicated clearly and appropriately to the relevant audience.

From the onset, learners at IEB schools are prepared for assessment of this nature because their teachers teach and assess with such an approach in mind, from the early grades in high school. This does not mean that teaching learners about critical thinking cannot happen earlier! However the practice of teachers by necessity is different, and we believe, improved because of the examination for which they are preparing learners.  In essence, for the IEB, the way a question is asked matters!

A possible question in a Grade 12 history examination could be:

Discuss the extent to which Hitler’s personality was a contributing factor in the cause of the Second World War.

In approaching such a question, a learner would be required to identify each of the possible causes of the Second World War and then finally decide and argue how much the personality of Hitler contributed to the outbreak of the war.  Inherent in the question is the notion that there are a fixed set of causes for the war which are indisputable and seen as such by all.  It encourages a notion that one can open a textbook, learn the causes of the war and when asked about them,  reproduce them with an added commentary as suggested by the question. Often the added commentary will reflect an opinion of a well-known scholar on the issue.

One could explore a learner’s knowledge of the causes of the Second World War by asking the following question:

Imagine that you are a 14 year old German boy, living in Germany in 1940.  Why would you join the Hitler Youth?

This question too requires learners to know why Germany was at war and so also demands a similar knowledge base as the question above.  However inherent in the question is the notion that the causes of the war are not indisputable.  For example, for a boy living in Germany, Hitler might not be perceived as a tyrant or insane, as some scholars from the world of the Allies suggest.  It indicates that so-called facts of history are interpreted differently by people, depending on their life experience, their understanding of the meaning behind particular events and so on. This realisation that history and events are not seen in the same way by all people is an incredibly important  life lesson - the way a question is asked either emphasises this important lesson from studying history or it re-inforces a false perception that ‘facts’ are indisputable, no matter who is reporting them. 

Is the IEB National Senior Certificate examination more difficult than other
National Senior Certificate examinations in our country?

All schools who offer the National Senior Certificate follow the National Curriculum Statements which outline the learning requirements in each subject. The IEB has its own Subject Assessment Guidlines (SAGs) which provide the structure and weighting of each examination component - examination papers, oral and practical requirements and school based assessment requirements. All South African examination bodies are accredited by Umalusi, the statutory quality assurance body. The IEB is hence accredited to operate by Umalusi. Umalusi being the national certification body issues the National Senior Certificate. The IEB issues an IEB statement of results to its learners.

Umalusi moderates all externally set examination papers to ensure that they comply with the National Curriculum Statements and the examination requirements of the examination body. They also assess whether the examination papers are more or less assessing at the level one should expect of a Grade 12 learner.

There is no scientific way of proving whether one examination paper is assessing at the same level as another, simply because the issue of standards and comparability of standards is more complex than the examination paper itself. It embraces provisioning which includes the ability, qualification and application of teachers. It includes the physical resources at schools and support for learners at home, which includes issues of language proficiency, access to IT, support from parents. Then there are the more obvious expressions of standards namely the examination paper itself, the administration and conduct of the examination, how irregularities are dealt with as well as how the papers are marked and finally, resulting.

The IEB is of the opinion that the way schools prepare learners for the examination makes the IEB examination accessible to the learners. To look at an analogy: if you are preparing for the down-run of the Comrade’s Marathon, your training, while it may be as demanding in respect of time and distances, will differ from what your training runs would be if you were preparing for the up-run. Because the impact of the race on your knees in a down-run is different from the impact on the knees in an up-run, preparation for the down-run requires training on different roads to ensure that the knees for example are adequately prepared for the down-run. In the same way, because of the IEB way of assessing, teachers approach the preparation of learners differently to prepare them to cope well with the difference.

Hence, the way of teaching learners in an IEB school prepares them for the IEB examination in the same way as teaching in other schools prepares their learners for the examination they will write. And just as preparation for an up-run does not prepare you for a down-run in the Comrades Marathon, preparation for an IEB examination does not prepare you for the examination of another examining body and vice versa.

Do IEB learners get any special consideration when they apply for entry to university? 

Because all learners in South Africa offer the same curriculum and Umalusi issues the National Senior Certificate to all successful learners, universities cannot use the NSC certificates to distinguish between learners from different examining bodies. However, the initial Statement of Results does clearly indicate which examining body is issuing the statement. In addition, the IEB downloads the results of its learners to universities who use the data to check applicants’ results on registration.

It should be noted too that universities and technikons often make an initial decision about acceptance of a learner on the basis of Grade 11 results from a school.  In many instances they have a very good idea of the reliability of the marks they receive from schools and hence have a very good idea whether these marks accurately predict what a learner from that school will achieve at the end of Grade 12 and whether a learner will cope with the demands of the course for which they are applying.  The demand on higher education institutions to accept learners who will succeed is great simply because a substantial part of their subsidy is dependent on throughput rates.

Furthermore because of the increased demand, higher education institutions need to give selection issues much greater attention than in the past. While most institutions are guided by the Admission Points Score, a number of prominent institutions conduct a placement and selection test to discriminate between learners who may have achieved similarly in Grade 11. Others conduct what is called an exclusion test for borderline learners.  Whatever name is given to the selection test, the IEB believes that learners being prepared for an IEB examination will also have the fundamental skills and knowledge to do well in such tests. Consideration is often also given to a range of other issues e.g. government applied quotas, community service, participation in extra-mural activities, offering additional subjects such as Mathematics Paper 3 or Advanced Programme Mathematics. 

How do IEB university students fare at university?

One must also remember that being accepted at a tertiary institution is only the very first step. The success of a learner once accepted, depends to a very large extent on how well they have been prepared to cope with the academic demands of the subjects they choose to study, the discipline required for working and studying, the skills required for critical engagement in more complex issues and finally the ability to organise oneself and balance one’s activities to ensure that one’s studies receive the attention they require.

The IEB is confident that learners attending IEB schools are well prepared to cope with the demands placed on them at tertiary level. This is borne out by a study carried out at the University of Cape Town (UCT) which looked at the success rate of IEB students over the period of 3 years (2005-2007). In that study it was noted that  25% of first degree graduates at UCT in 2007 came from IEB schools. Furthermore, in that same study, it was determined that on average over a 3 year period, the throughput rate of learners from IEB schools i.e. learners who graduated after three years or were enrolled for further study, was 98%.  

Is the IEB examination internationally recognised?

The National Senior Certificate (NSC) is a relatively new qualification, written in South Africa for the first time in 2008. The international standing of the major school leaving and university entrance qualification in a country that has the status that South Africa has on the African continent is critically important not only for learners who may wish to study abroad but also for placing students who enter South Africa to study. More importantly the external recognition of the South African qualification is important for our South African society and parents in particular who take the education of their children seriously. They need to be re-assured that the standard of education in our country as evidenced in the main school leaving examination is of an acceptable standard internationally.

In 2009 after the first examination session for the NSC was conducted, the IEB approached UK NARIC to conduct a benchmarking exercise on the National Senior certificate. UK NARIC is the National Agency, managed on behalf of the UK Government, to provide an official source of information on international qualifications to organisations recruiting from outside the UK and to individuals wishing to work or study in the UK.

International recognition of a qualification takes into account the number of years of schooling that leads up to the final assessment, the number of subjects the qualification requires students to study, the content of the curriculum as well as the quality assurance associated with the assessment.

The benchmarking study was based on UK NARIC’s approach to credential evaluation, taking into account the design and assessment framework, broader observations of the curricula restructuring process, course objectives and learning outcome statements, the structure of the final award, level descriptors, the assessment process, grading structure and comparisons and finally quality assurance and control mechanisms. A sample of subjects was used in the study including English Home Language, Mathematics (including Paper 3), Advanced Programme Mathematics, Physical Sciences, Life Sciences and Geography.

In its Executive Summary, the UK NARIC report highlighted the following:

  • The features of the NSC indicate a qualification with an underlying level that is both robust and fit for the purposes of examining senior secondary school levels. In terms of the qualification’s comparability, the report concludes that the National Senior Certificate at Grade 12 is broadly comparable to the GCE AS- level.

  • For those candidates who undertake the IEB Advanced Programme in Mathematics, the report is satisfied that the additional content is more reflective of the requirements of the GCE A level. Furthermore, it is noted that there are considerations to develop an advanced paper for English Home Language, it could be surmised that an advanced paper could further enhance the comparability of the subject to GCE A level standard.
These findings were echoed in a 2010 study carried out by Umalusi, the South African quality assurance body for further and general education and training. The IEB has numerous examples of IEB students who have applied to and been accepted into foreign universities in the United Kingdom, the United States and Australia.

Entrance Tests

Just as it is the case with many local universities, students who wish to study at foreign institutions are required to write entrance tests. The words of an IEB student, Adele Rossouw, a student at Roedean School South Africa in 2008, who was accepted for study at 5 overseas institutions in 2009 and who has chosen to study at Yale University in the US, are pertinent:

“It should be noted that an IEB National Senior Certificate is not sufficient to exempt South African applicants from the additional entrance examinations required by most overseas universities. This is not because a South African IEB matric represents any form of substandard education, but simply because of the necessity of a benchmarking mechanism by which to evaluate top candidates from around the world. Bearing in mind the international level of competition which applicants to, for example, an American Ivy League university face, one should recognise that sound academic knowledge is but the foundation for success on such a level of competition. In addition, the successful applicant needs to possess the intellectual dexterity which is the mark of the exceptional student, and which allows for easy transition to a largely unfamiliar educational system, and for the development of knowledge in an international setting.” This opinion is echoed by Higher Education South Africa.

The Combined NSC and Abitur Qualification

The Combined NSC and Abitur was assessed for the first time in 2009. It is a qualification offered at the 3 German schools in South Africa – Deutsche Schule Johannesburg, Kapstadt and Pretoria - and is recognised formally by the German and South African education authorities. It consists of subjects assessed by the Abitur authorities in Germany and the IEB in South Africa. A successful learner has access to both South African universities and German universities.

Why should I send my child to an IEB school?

The philosophy of the IEB is that assessment drives teaching and learning. Hence good, probing assessment will promote good, quality teaching.  To get a good education, you need good teaching, driven and stimulated by an appropriate assessment regime. The IEB believes that it provides assessment that stimulates and encourages teaching that develops the skills needed for success in life – clear thinking, analysis, evaluation, unambiguous communication, substantiation of opinion as well as a strong grounding in the fundamental skills and knowledge that underpin the subject curricula.

For the brighter learner, the stimulation provided by an examination that explores understanding and requires learners to develop and substantiate their own views,  probes more deeply, militates against boredom that often sets in when a bright learner is unchallenged. For the weaker learner, the focussed attention on developing key skills required in life prevents the learner from believing that learning off-by-heart is the only way to success.  The exposure of other ways to access and display knowledge, the exposure to multiple ways of seeing an issue encourages them to explore ideas more fully than they might in a classroom that suggests there is only one correct answer and only one correct way to do something.

IEB schools generally have focussed support for learners who may experience difficulties in specific subject areas. The IEB focuses on assessment that actively encourages the teaching of skills inherent in the subject curricula but in an expanded way so that learners are able to transfer them to application in wider contexts. It is the preparation of learners for life after school and the development of those skills sets which go beyond subject-specific knowledge that makes an IEB school different.

What does the IEB do to support teachers?

The IEB believes that teachers are a school’s greatest resource. As such it is critical that they are appropriately rewarded for their contribution to the education of learners and are appropriately supported to do their work within the school. In addition they need stimulation not only to retain their interest but also to motivate them to try something new, to get new ideas and approaches. The IEB believes fully in the professional development of teachers. To assist teachers in their preparation of learners for an IEB examination, the IEB advises schools to register when their learners are in Grade 10. This provides teachers with a 3-year period to engage with the IEB and its registered schools in their area. During that time the IEB professional and administrative staff visit the school to provide them with information they will need and answer any questions that arise. In these visits teachers are encouraged to ask the professional staff for advice and assistance where they feel they need it..

The IEB professional staff is also available by telephone or by email to respond directly to queries. The IEB has cluster groups at a local level that encourage teachers in an area to work together and share ideas.  For schools in outlying areas, the IEB encourages e-clustering.  New schools often ‘buddy’ with an IEB school in order to gain support and advice from teachers experienced in the IEB system. The IEB professional staff attends cluster meetings if necessary to assist and advise teachers. Annually the IEB holds national User Group conferences for teachers at schools that write the IEB examination. These are full-day conferences where the examining panel provide feedback to teachers about the examination written in the previous year. In some instances, the conference convenor arranges speakers on specific topics of the curriculum, workshops on how to teach a specific concept or simply a motivational speaker or activity. These conferences provide teachers with an opportunity to network, to share experiences, to exchange information, to make suggestions about policy and curriculum interpretation issues.

Regional representatives are elected at these conferences. Their role is to provide a link between the National Subject Forum (NSF), the subject committee responsible for developing the IEB’s subject assessment guidelines, examination structure, school based assessment requirements as well as the IEB’s submissions to the national department about the subject. The NSF  is the IEB’s policy task team for the subject. The regional representative is required to provide feedback to teachers in the region about any NSF activity. They are the teachers’ voice on policy matters. In addition, they are requested to arrange regional conferences for teachers in their region, as and when the need arises. Their effectiveness is directly related to the teachers in their region – the feedback they get when requesting comment on documents, the ideas they get from teachers for the conference programme, the needs expressed to them by teachers in the region.

The IEB has a training division called ASSET – Assessment Education and Training. This unit provides training for teachers in assessment, moderation, design and development of assessment. Some of these courses are accredited by the ETDP and hence can be claimed from levies paid to the SETA while others are one-day workshops. Courses and workshops can be customised to address a school’s specific needs. For example, if a school is uncomfortable with their results in the Core Skills Test at Grade 9, they may request ASSET to conduct a workshop with their staff that picks up specific gaps in their learners’ understanding and provides guidance and ideas on how to address these areas. Teachers from new schools to the IEB are encouraged to participate fully in the User Group conferences and cluster meetings from Grade 10.

How does the IEB ensure reliability in its marking processes?

Teachers who mark IEB scripts are recruited from teachers that teach the subject at Grade 12 at IEB schools.  In this way the IEB is assured of the subject expertise of the teachers as well as the professional expertise required to manage the marking of an IEB examination - they are qualified through their knowledge base and their teaching experience to cope with the questions that do not demand ‘right-wrong’ answers but require discernment on the part of the marker.

Marking is centralised providing all teachers with an opportunity to discuss the marking guidelines together, and hence contribute to a comprehensive understanding of what is an acceptable answer, and why, and what is not acceptable, and why.  Clearly this intensive engagement during the standardisation of a marking guideline is an exceptionally powerful professional development process, providing teachers with insight as well as the opportunity to contribute to discussion. In this way, the IEB is assured that all approaches to a question are reviewed and accommodated appropriately or rejected with valid reason. Bright learners are the ones who usually provide unexpected insight into a question. 

Centralized marking by experienced markers allows for the detection of the merits in unusual answers and full discussion can follow. This ensures that all valid responses even though they may not have been accommodated initially in the marking guidelines are dealt with. The IEB encourages new teachers to the IEB to mark as a means of providing them with a deeper insight into what kinds of responses should be encouraged in learners, how certain concepts can be assessed and taught in a meaningful way but most importantly to give them access to a body of professionals from whom they can  seek support and advice.  Clearly there is careful monitoring and training of the new markers.

What kind of support does the IEB provide to schools?

The IEB provides schools that are registered with it the support and assistance they require to provide their learners with a credible, valid and reliable examination result. We have discussed the quality of IEB professional support for teachers and learners and the importance of an examination of quality on teaching and learning.  However the IEB has as one of its values, commitment and service.

Our administrative staff too is committed to ensuring that schools have all the information and answers they need to conduct a problem-free examination. They are trained to assist and resolve difficulties as best and as easily as possible within the confines of legislation; their professionalism and willingness to assist wherever possible has constantly earned them praise from IEB registered schools.

The IEB is a relatively small organisation and hence staff members can be contacted quite easily by telephone, fax or email. Some situations need swift attention and because of the size of the IEB most emergencies can be readily dealt with and answers speedily provided.

IEB - Assessment Matters
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