Zimsec grade inflation: Mutambara right
We note with concern the analysis by Prof Arthur Mutambara, pictured, on the 2019 Advanced Level results released by Zimsec in January 2020.
While he dwelt specifically on the “A” Level results only, our opinion will focus on both the “A” and “O” Level results.
To be fair, we believe that learners who have excelled should be applaud
ed, and that those who have gone the extra mile to do more than the usual 8-10 subjects and performed exceptionally are actually in the class of genius.
It is commendable that where five years plus ago gifted students took four subjects, it is disconcerting, from an examination assessment point, that we now have dozens of students taking more than 4 subjects and actually getting maximum points.
It is also equally surprising that at one school more than half the students actually scored 15 points or more.
Some people have lampooned Mutambara, calling him a jealous gatekeeper who wants to be known as the only genius to have walked Zimbabwe. We believe that such sentiments amount to shooting the messenger instead of looking the message in the eye.
Some have also opined that today’s students have access to a wide array of sources of information, or that they are more motivated than their fathers and mothers.
Our own analysis indicates that yes, grade inflation is a reality, and in a way very deliberate or even manipulated. The government, Zimsec and schools all take credit, whether negative or positive for these developments. This is because of a number of reasons;
n From about 2000, a deliberate political decision was taken by government to loosen the marking of subjects like English by removing the strict marking system which obliged students to know English like Englishmen.
Henceforth, students could get a passmark for indicating that the idea had been communicated. For instance, if a student wrote “I then wented” or “my name was Peter”, as examples, they would still get an overall pass because it was argued that the examiner had an idea what the student was saying.
That is why we have hundreds of students and teachers who can teach English without them being fluent in the language. This was a “win-win” situation in the eyes of the government.
On one hand, the pass rate for English would spike, bringing relief to many who couldn’t proceed to tertiary education level on account of failed English. On the other hand, the government could “show the British” that “English is nothing, we can do without it or with our own version”.
Note, very few of us can understand English spoken in West Africa yet it remains English and the people there are ok with it.
n The same scenario was extended to other subjects like History which were previously difficult to excel in, especially at “A” Level. The need to express yourself in very good English to be awarded good marks was dropped.
Merely expressing your idea, even in bad English, was gifted with good marks. Which is why we are in this situation where even people who can’t explain their points can get As, and it’s now possible for one school to get 50 As in History. And here we are only using History as an example.
n Previously difficult subjects could henceforth be passed at will by huge numbers of students because of Zimsec concept whose origin we are not sure of — positive marking.
This system was created again to benefit students who were even half-wrong, awarding them full marks as long as they have a good idea of what they wanted to say.
The result, of course is that poor students now pass, average students get excellent marks, and the gifted who previously had to work hard to get As at “O” or “A” Level, now brazenly take 15 subjects and get straight A’s because they don’t have to work that much to get those As.
Of course, there is also the added fact that hundreds of schools are now stuffed by examiners of the subjects at Zimsec level, which means they can just drill students in examinable material, and they pass even though they know little about the subject.
Some schools are also staffed by item writers (those who set examinations), who themselves can teach both the questions and the answers. If you ask examiners, they will tell you that there are some centres where students wrote answers that are in sync with the marking guide word for word. (This surely becomes a challenge that needs serious interrogation by critical stakeholders and other interested parties)
Worse, rich schools, especially boarding schools, can also hire examiners of different levels, including Principal Marking Supervisors (PMS), who then not only drill the students in possible examination questions and answers, but also supervise markers to make sure they don’t mark the drilled schools softly, so that it would appear the drilling worked wonders.
It cannot be denied, however, that students now have access to the Internet and therefore are exposed to a lot of information helpful to them for exam purposes. However, there is need for Zimsec and government to take a relook at the assessment system with a view to making it more credible.
It is not quite believable that a single school can comprise gifted students enough to have more than half of them scoring the maximum points. It cant. If it happens it’s not wrong for outsiders to want to understand more.
Having said all this, was Mutambara right to argue that there has been deliberate grade inflation at Zimsec? Our view is that he is largely right. Assessment has been effectively whittled down to an informal tool by authorities to “prove” that we are now better without Cambridge Exams, that Zimsec is holding its own fort.
It is what could easily be called addition by subtraction — the act of falsely increasing credits while nothing of the sort has happened on the ground.
This topic seriously needs more time and has to be understood by those engaging in it. We are happy someone brought it up. As usual the Zimbabwean tragedy is attacking the person and miss the submissions made.
True to some extent we felt The Good Professor may have missed a few things but surely its good he raised critical issues Zimsec/ Schools/Parents/ Trade Unions and everyone should take time ponder about.