At the backdrop of yet another shocking poor performance in Botswana General Certificate for Secondary Education (BGCSE) 2015, a study conducted by Botswana Examination Council (BEC) has unearthed how this continued poor performance may be due to the fact that from an early stage local students can barely read which in turn translate to them failing to comprehend other subjects such as Mathematics and Science. Findings from two studies - Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) 2011 - which are administered by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) shows that Botswana students when compared to others internationally leave a lot to be desired. The IEA is composed of countries around the globe who are interested in finding out the extent to which their learners have mastered what they are taught in Mathematics and Science and how their learning achievements compare with those of learners at the same level in other countries.
According to the research report by BEC released in 2014, PIRLS 2011 was the first study in which Botswana participated and it provided baseline data on the relative performance of Botswana internationally. It is an international assessment of reading at Standard 4, and is conducted every five years by IEA since 2001. The fourth year of schooling, it must be noted, is taken as a transition whereby pupils have learned how to read and are then reading to learn. Although Botswana students participated in the PIRLS 2011 cycle at standard 6 rather than at standard 4, their overall performance was lower than the international average mark of 500. “Our students even when tested alongside students who were grades lower than them and even younger than them, performed poorly nonetheless,” BEC Executive Secretary Professor Brian Mokopakgosi said in an interview with this publication. The PIRLS for standard 6 observed that most of the items which students were supposed to respond to had been returned blank, and because of this, it was hypothesized that English had a bearing on students’ performance.
About 40- 60 percent of the students had attributes that affected learning achievement including lack of prerequisite knowledge, inadequate nutrition, sleep, interest, indiscipline and with special needs. The report also pointed out that about 50 percent to 57 percent of the students never had computers used for learning and those whose teachers used computers more frequently performed better. On the other hand findings from TIMSS 2011- Standard 6 provided an even more intriguing insight on the relationship between pupils’ demographics and pupils’ background variables and achievements. Botswana pupils overall performance for both subjects (Mathematics & Science) was lower than the international benchmark mean of 500. The overall mean achievement for Mathematics was 419.22 while for Science it was 367.33.
Older pupils perform poorly
The TIMSS results suggested that older pupils perform poorly compared to younger pupils, taking into account pupil life experience differences. “Therefore, it is not a panacea to delay pupils to start school hoping that they will do well when they are older,” the report stated. Comparison with other participating countries showed that Botswana was one of the lowest performing countries with an average performance of 419 in Mathematics and 367 in Science. The best performing countries had an average performance of 606 in Mathematics and 587 in Science. “This implied that Botswana’s standard six pupils found test materials a bit difficult, which were handled with ease by pupils of lower grades (Standard four equivalent) of other countries,” said the report. Interestingly the report also took a pot shot at one aspect that the Ministry of Education had recently been pointing out as one likely measure of redress for poor performing students at primary school.
“This also applies to retaining pupils in school or making a pupil retake a year or two. This does not necessarily help in older pupils’ performance in Mathematics and Science. So, any national policy in education that suggests that pupils who dropped out of school or who failed earlier on must go back to school most likely results in low average performance or a decline in performance,” the study read. TIMSS was also conducted on students at Form 2, and just like the lower grade results, Botswana students performed unsatisfactory in both Mathematics and Science and their performance was lower than the international benchmark mean of 500. The overall mean achievement for Mathematics was 391 while Science was 404. “Despite Botswana’s participation at a higher grade (higher age), it was ranked third from the bottom in both Mathematics and Science out of 45 countries,” the report stated.
According to the BEC Executive Secretary, findings outlined by these studies prove that student’s performance ‘have not been good’ over the years and there was an urgent need for a major overhaul of the system. Although it may seem that the poor performance of local students has been going on without change for quite some time now, BEC Director of Research and Policy Development Dr Moreetsi Thobega stated that after making recommendations to the Ministry of Education and Skills Development in 2014, the performance as it is, is showing some improvements. “We should be able to see more positive change in the years to come,” Dr Thobega said. According to Dr Thobega, recommendations from these studies are being implemented at some of the senior secondary schools who have recorded a notable improvement of more than 5 percent such as Shakawe Senior Secondary School.
Among recommendations outlined by the reports include; aligning the local curriculum with the international and current trends with regards to what students are expected to know and do at particular levels and age, emphasising literary experience in reading and in service teacher training, emphasising the importance of education and higher achievement at school among students, teachers and parents, drawing up policies and guidelines for dealing with misconduct at schools. The reports (prePIRLS) 2011 also emphasised the importance of pre-primary education to students. According to the report, formalisation of pre-primary education was vital, hence the need to make it free and compulsory to children under the age of five. Meanwhile Professor Mokopakgosi said that although these results may seem to be reflecting students’ performance at a lower level, it is now evident that the trend goes up, and later reflect on the performance of students even in their later stage of learning including BGCSE and even at tertiary level.