Towards improving equity in assessment for tertiary science students in South Africa : incorporating an oral component.
This study sought to explore some of the ways in which assessment itself needs to be treated as a feature of equity and transformation in post-apartheid South Africa. How can the classroom become a level playing field for all, not just in terms of admission and changes to the overall composition of the student body, as well as staffing, but in relation to the curriculum itself, of which assessment is a part? In a multilingual, multicultural country like South Africa, which also carries a lot of political baggage, one has to agree that assessing all students in the same way does not mean, assessing all students equally. To assess all students in the same way, regardless of their proficiency in English and only in the mode of writing, is to ignore the wealth of diversity and potential among our student population. The ESL students in this study repeatedly indicated that they cannot express themselves adequately in writing in English and that "the expression of the examiners" and the "wording of the questions" pose a problem in the written assessments. They often find out after a paper "what a question meant" or what the examiner intended. EFL students too experienced problems with "ambiguity" and "unclear expression" of the examiners. This qualitative study introduced an oral component into the present tertiary assessment structures in Science. The private nature of the written assessments does not permit interaction between student and examiner or invigilator during an examination. This means that both student and assessor in turn have to rely on their own interpretation of the written word without consulting with each other. Oral assessments on the other hand, permit live interaction. Both candidate and assessor can seek clarity from each other. Rather than grappling with understanding of each others' English, the focus can rightfully move to assessing the student's knowledge of content. As the study endeavoured to devise a relatively new form of assessment for the South African context, it required tools and techniques that would provide for exploration and that would allow for modification along the way. An action research approach was therefore used. This study took on what might be described as a 'hybrid' version of action research in order to investigate how as an instructor in Language Education, I could bring about change in assessment in Science. Individual and group oral assessments were conducted with undergraduate students at two tertiary institutions, viz. a technikon and a university, in KwaZulu-Natal. The assessments were conducted in three phases. The first phase of the assessments adapted oral assessment practices used by South African and international Science educators. The second and third phases investigated 'closed' structures devised for the individual and group oral assessments within a South African tertiary context, respectively. After each phase of the assessments, feedback from the participants was analysed and comments and criticisms were addressed. Collaboration with the participants yielded harmonious working relationships, successful administration of the assessments, and valuable contributions from the students and assessors, especially with regard to the design of the oral assessment grid. Five main sources of data were generated in this study, viz. from the focus group discussions with the assessors and the students, the student and assessor questionnaires, and the assessment sessions. Triangulation, and more specifically, data triangulation was employed to ensure reliability and validity or consistency and comparability of the oral assessments. Incorporating an oral component to the assessments meant that students could reap the benefit of the higher mark in either the written or the oral mode. Students were grateful that the assessments "tested two different sides of a person" and that if they could not express themselves adequately in writing, they could "fall back on the orals". Assessors were unanimous that "apart from promoting understanding, the oral assessments provided many other benefits for assessors and students". They therefore hailed the mixed-mode of assessments as a "win-win situation" for all the participants. The study concludes with recommendations and implications for the reform of language policy and assessment practices in tertiary education, and the need for further work in tertiary classrooms where teachers embark upon action research.