Picture: THINKSTOCK
Picture: THINKSTOCK

THE Department of Basic Education has been accused of misleading Parliament after presenting a key report that showed that the performance of teachers in SA was getting worse, but that pupil performance had improved.

Earlier this week, officials from the department presented to parliamentarians a key Africa-wide report by the Southern and Eastern Africa Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality (Sacmeq) on education outcomes.

The officials highlighted that the performance of grade 6 pupils had improved in the key subjects of maths and English. But they could not explain the stated improvement in pupil performance while at the same time teacher performance had dipped.

According to education researcher and former Sacmeq consultant Nic Spaull, this anomaly was because weaker pupils were excluded from the final results, thereby inflating the score for SA.

Spaull recently resigned from Sacmeq, citing concerns with the "comparability and validity of the findings".

He maintained that there was no scientific basis for the department to claim an improvement in pupil performance because of the noncomparability of results between the previous and current studies.

"The principal grounds for my technical concerns and subsequent resignation was the noncomparability of the results between Sacmeq III (the previous report) and Sacmeq IV (the current report tabled in Parliament) because of the different methodologies employed when calculating test scores between Sacmeq III and Sacmeq IV, and particularly the fact that weaker students had been excluded from the final results in the process." Spaull. This does not seem to have been addressed since the results presented to Parliament were the same as those that I identified as problematic," said Spaull.

On Thursday he said he had raised these concerns with the Department, but this had been ignored.

"Yes, someone can say the Department misled Parliament … they were well aware of these concerns, but they did not reveal this to MPs," he said.

He said it was "disingenuous" for the department to argue that the report was a "preliminary report".

Sacmeq measures grade 6 pupils and teachers’ basic reading and mathematics skills across 15 countries on the continent including Botswana, Kenya, Lesotho, Mauritius, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Sacmeq is a consortium of education ministries, policy-makers and researchers who, in conjunction with Unesco, aim to improve the research capacity and technical skills of educational planners and to provide policy-relevant information on the quality of education in participating countries.

The latest study was conducted in 2013 but its results were only made available to the public this week.

SA was involved in the Sacmeq test in 2000, 2007 and 2013, but teachers have only been tested in the past two examinations.

The report showed that pupils improved between 2007 and 2013 tests "off a very low base", but teachers’ maths and reading scores had regressed. Against the Sacmeq centre point of 500, pupils in SA for the first time achieved a mean score above the centre point with 558 in reading and 587 in maths.

"The gains in the Sacmeq reading and mathematics scores between 2007 and 2013 are so unbelievably large that they would make South Africa the fastest-improving education system in the world," said Spaull.

The average score for reading achieved by grade 6 teachers dropped from 758 in the 2007 study, to 672 in the 2013 study. For maths‚ the average score achieved by grade 6 teachers dropped from 764 in the 2007 study to 757 in the 2013 study.

Sacmeq scores are scaled to have an international average value of 500 and a standard deviation of 100 points. Previous Sacmeq studies have shown that teachers could not answer questions taken from tests that their pupils were expected to answer.

DA MP and basic education spokesperson Gavin Davis said on Thursday it appeared that there may have been no improvement in pupil performance at all, due to weak pupils being excluded.

"It is concerning that the Department of Basic Education apparently knew that the Sacmeq III and IV data was noncomparable … misleading Parliament is a serious matter. I have today written to the chairperson of the portfolio committee, Nomalengelo Gina, requesting that (Basic Education) Minister Angie Motshekga be summoned before the committee to explain what happened," said Davis.

Basic Education spokesperson Elijah Mhlanga said on Thursday: "It’s a preliminary report which is currently undergoing verification, which is what we communicated to the portfolio committee as well. We will be happy to discuss once the report is released in the middle of October."