A report on some tests of standard 6 pupils' performance in general science at a KwaZulu-Natal secondary school, some possible contributory factors, and implications for teachers.
This research made a diagnostic assessment of some aspects of pupil performance in General Science on entry to secondary school. This assessment included written content and skills assessment of all standard 6 pupils at a secondary school in KwaZulu-Natal. The written skills assessment of 302 pupils involved two tests, one in English and one in Zulu. General Science in the research school was taught in English, while two-thirds of the standard 6 pupil population had Zulu as their first language. All pupils first wrote the test in English, and then the Zulu pupils took the same test again in Zulu. The test was designed to assess pupil performance in areas of a) symbolic representation of data b) application of science concepts c) interpretation of data and d) planning of investigations. The questions used in the test were adapted from the question bank of the Assessment of Performance Unit in the United Kingdom. The written content assessment was designed to test pupils' understanding of various science concepts encountered in primary science. Their recognition of various pieces of science equipment was also tested. Questionnaires regarding various aspects of Science, science teaching practice and perceptions of pupil abilities were administered to pupils' past (standard 5) and present (standard 6) science teachers. A focused group discussion with science teachers at the research school investigated some thoughts on skills-based teaching and assessment. The researcher was also able to draw on experiences of classroom observation as she is a teacher at the research school. As hypothesised, pupils' performance in the skills tested was generally poor, especially in the skills more specifically related to science. Content assessment revealed that almost half of the pupils in the classes analysed held common misconceptions about certain science concepts, not unlike those held by primary school children tested in other countries. Pupil performance generally increased when pupils were presented with a test in their mother-tongue. In other areas, e.g. planning of investigations, poor performance in both English and Zulu tests indicated that these questions were either not known or understood, rather than an issue of linguistic difficulty. Teachers highlighted several factors which retarded the progress of skills-based teaching methods in 'real-life' classroom situations.