Newsletter 134 - Research 1/7 - ANA


What the Annual National Assessments can tell us about learning deficits over the education system and the school career year posted by SERVAAS VAN DER BERG 2015

Some tentative conclusions and policy implications

The analysis of the ANA data confirms the findings of many international and indeed also domestic assessments which have been undertaken, namely that;

  • South African school children perform weakly in terms of cognitive outcomes. In particular, the ANA data have been used to show that the performance of children is already below an approximation of the low international benchmark of TIMSS as early as Grade 3 or Grade 4.
  • The pattern across quintiles of students who are on track (above the low international benchmark and not overaged) is remarkably similar in shape, and similar in magnitude, to that of students who achieve a university exemption (Bachelor’s pass) in Grade 12.
  • This similarity provides suggestive evidence that for most students academic success in terms of passing matric well and potentially obtaining a university degree – and the benefits that such a degree confers in the labour market – is already largely unattainable by the time they reach the end of the Foundation Phase.
  • Given weaknesses in the ANA as a measurement device in the earliest grades, it is not clear whether a large part of the learning deficit may already exist in the earliest grades, or whether it grows quickly in these early grades.
  • The policy message is simple and stark: for most children, learning deficits are already so substantial by the middle of primary school that many doors have already closed for them.
  • Whilst efforts to ameliorate these deficits at higher levels are important and must continue for the sake of those who may still benefit from them, the greatest effort is required in the early school years, if not before.
  • That is where the greatest policy challenge lies in terms of reducing the deficits that mainly children from poorer communities face in our schooling system. This holds true whether deficits arise from weak early instruction or simply because a disadvantaged home environment requires early remedial action.
  • The conclusion that the emphasis should fall on the early grades is contrary to the conclusions drawn from the ANA results by policy makers, namely that weak test scores in mathematics in Grade 9 require major interventions mainly in that grade.
  • What is also clearly required is better information on the performance and learning trajectories of young children.
  • ANA has been successful in a number of ways – not least as a massive logistical exercise undertaken relatively successfully – and it is important to build on those successes and further develop ANA as a measuring instrument.
  • However, another instrument is also needed, such as a panel survey of children in the Foundation Phase, with good retrospective questions about early childhood development and careful monitoring and assessment of learning outcomes, to track children’s cognitive development during the first few years of school (and preferably even starting before children enter school). Such an instrument would offer greater insight into the roles of school and home during those crucial early years, something that ANA could only begin to suggest.

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