The assessment of the 11 “home languages” at the end of secondary school in South Africa is patently unfair. That is the finding of a recent investigation that Colleen du Plessis (UFS), Sanet Steyn (NWU) and I report on in an article that has just been published on LitNet Akademies. The Grade 12 exit examinations are high stakes assessments, since the Home Language mark contributes disproportionately to the index on the basis of which access is granted to higher education (or entry into the world of work). They are unfair, because they are not equivalent: in some languages one has a much better chance to pass than in others.
There are many causes for the unfairness, the investigation reveals. One is that the final examinations have over time drifted away from the curriculum, and in fact have become the curriculum. The other is that the good intentions of the curriculum have been systematically misinterpreted. The third is that the examinations for some languages are just so much easier than others. All contribute to undermining the credibility of one of the highest stakes examinations in South Africa. The report expresses the opinion that to achieve equivalence the construct of what gets measured must again be articulated, before a range of possible new formats for the assessment are adopted. At present, for example, there is an unwillingness to make use of multiple choice formats, though that will make marking substantially more reliable.
What is interesting to me, from a theoretical point of view – since my main interest is to see how systematic, foundational or philosophical insights relate to technically qualified design considerations – is that the design principles for a good language test work together: we cannot achieve equivalence without technical imagination and creativity; we cannot ensure fairness without technically equivalent tests. To support those, we need consistent and adequate (‘valid’) measurement. And as to the accountability for our language test designs, we need a lot of political will to make fairness happen.
Though the report is in Afrikaans, there is an extended abstract of some 1500 words in English. There is also an interview with the three authors (one was overseas) that you might be interested in. The project aims to start off with English, Afrikaans and Sesotho. Colleen’s study is the anchor study; Sanet, who has developed a Test of Advanced Language Ability (TALA) in English, will examine how this can be converted into an equivalent test in Afrikaans; and Johannes Mahlasela (also of NWU) will take the investigation further for Sesotho. It will be an uphill battle, and on many fronts!