The Minister of Basic Education, Unity Dow, on Monday ducked taking responsibility for the poor 2016 JCE results, claiming that "in the absence of an in-depth research into the root cause, we cannot certainly pin point a singular cause for this". Instead Dow suggests that a tracer study of the candidates’ progress from PSLE can help understand if pupils improve or become poorer as they transit from primary to secondary. "Are we accepting into the mainstream, pupils who should otherwise be receiving specialised education? Has automatic progression had an impact in that pupils proceed to the next stage before having mastered the one they are currently in? What are the influencing social factors on the subject choice of young people and how does it affect the way they perform in the examinations," she asks. But Dow's proposition and questions are a wild shot in the dark as her ministry has been conducting investigations every year to establish the cause of poor performance by candidates. The Patriot on Sunday is reliably informed that such studies have been completed but the reports, with far-reaching recommendations, are gathering dust at the ministry headquarters. Dow's ministry has also introduced automatic progression from primary to secondary school. Educationists have expressed shock that in her attempt to apportion blame Dow suggests that "social factors" influence choice of subjects by learners when those are prescribed by her ministry.
In 2016, 271 students attained an overall grade of A from a total number of 41 464 candidates who sat for the JCE compared 197 out of 41 938 in 2015. Cumulatively the total number of candidates who obtained a grade C or better is 32.54% against 33.4 %in 2015, a decline of 0.87%. Dow conceded that there is a gap in the JCE results, which demonstrated a disturbing consistency in the 30 -35% range. Absolving her ministry from blame Dow said it takes a collective effort of the parents, the community leaders, the teachers, the trade unions and the students themselves. She said the MoE is committed to offering the necessary support to all schools across the country to achieve better results, but reiterated that they cannot do it alone. "We all have a role to play". Nanogang JSS obtained 73.9% pass mark to scoop first position nationally in the 2016 Junior Certificate Examinations, the second year in a row that the school has outperformed others. It is followed closely by Orapa JSS with 72.1% and in third position is Makhubu Junior Secondary School with 68.6%. Last year Nanogang scored 83%. In fact all the top 15 schools are based in urban centres, a point teacher trade unions are harping on as demonstration for unequal distribution of resources between schools in rural areas and towns. Among other impediments in instruction delivery they point to ballooned class sizes, unavailability of basic teaching and learning resources in schools in the form of exercise books, notebooks and textbooks, unavailability of food and reduced contact time between teachers and students due to the unresolved disputes over hours of work.
Jeffrey D. Sachs – Special Adviser to the UN Secretary General on the Sustainable Development Goals –also observes in the Global Education Monitoring Report 2016 that there are remarkable gaps in educational attainment between rich and poor, within and between countries, which are simply appalling. "In many poor countries, poor children face nearly insurmountable obstacles under current conditions. They lack books at home; have no opportunity for pre-primary school; and enter facilities without electricity, water, hygiene, qualified teachers, textbooks and the other appurtenances of a basic education, much less a quality education. The implications are staggering," notes Sachs, adding that while SDG 4 calls for universal completion of upper secondary education by 2030, the current completion rate in low-income countries is a meagre 14%. Dow also concedes that resources, unsatisfactory remuneration and conditions of work will always be contributory factors to poor results but counters that Botswana has come from far more dire situations in the past. She then calls for change of attitudes positively to attain positive results.
The Grading system
Although some suggest that students are failed by the grading system used, there are strong arguments that MoE should keep the current criterion referencing grading system instead of reverting to the old norm reference testing (NRT), because it places emphasis on quality over quantity. Psychometrics expert, Seji Wale, said the ongoing debate on whether students have passed or not is largely due to unnecessary confusion occasioned by instrument invalidity by people who lack understanding of basic psychometric principles at MoE and Botswana Examination Council (BEC). He argues that the system used is not Criterion-Reference-Testing (CRT). "In fact, even if you need to do CRT it can never work in obsolescence. Education systems that are advanced blend the two because the instruments are not meant to fail but assess performance objectives. Pecking learners against their weaknesses as measurement defeats reason for assessment and that’s what the new system does. The implementers don't even know the system themselves. For the first time they agree with my 6-year-old assertion, which I made before the first results were out that a lot of the D are good passes. A student on 80% average can get Merit at the expense of a student who gets 95% average but scores a B in English, Maths, Setswana or Science. The old system was more CRT because it assigned a raw score to attributes of educational behaviours as compares to bulking up learners in a B group as if they were on a salary scale. Our cognisance of CRT, NRT, the concept of Testing & Measurement as well as assessment instruments validity and reliability should form cornerstones to this debate," said Wale, adding that blaming teachers for the failures is an insult to the profession.
A teacher's perspective
Defining the role of teachers and schools in education, a veteran teacher who preferred anonymity, called for strategic partnerships with the education sector to foster shared accountability in development of learners. She said teachers and schools have an important role to play towards learning capabilities of students. Their roles include promoting active learning, developing thinking skills, creating effective learning zones, promoting success, providing effective feedback, recognising and creating learning windows, developing good relationships, developing learning pedagogy, enhancing motivation and accepting individual differences, she explained. She said academic excellence can be attributed to different factors among them self-discipline and will power, which play a decisive role to every student who wishes to succeed academically. "Therefore, students with no self-discipline would often get distracted from their studies," she adds. Other factors she mentions are parental involvement and support, which contributes largely to student academic success; and school culture where students, parents, teachers, administrators and other staff members all contribute to their school's culture, as do other influences such as the community in which the school is located, the policies that govern how it operates.