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ZIMSEC grading: the scandal is that a huge majority of students fail

By Kudzai Mutisi

Professor Arthur Mutambara, an Oxford University graduate and former deputy prime minister of Zimbabwe, vehemently argues that ZIMSEC is inflating grades to the detriment of Zimbabwean students and brand Zimbabwe.

Kudzai Mutisi
Kudzai Mutisi

His assertion, however, is not based on facts (he didn’t provide any) but on perceptions and bald assumptions. Shockingly, the perceptions that Mutambara relied on are foreign and mischievous. Here is why!

Professor Mutambara argues that ‘it is impossible to distinguish the 15 pointers for purposes of awarding them scholarships to study at top universities like Harvard, Cambridge and Oxford.’ This is a hollow argument. He assumes that all these students are doing the same subject combination and have the same circumstances.

Having 15 points, or rather, academic achievement, is not the only variable considered when awarding scholarships or internships. There are lots of other screening techniques that can be applied when choosing students for scholarships or for internships.

Having the same school grades doesn’t mean having the same abilities. Those having 35 points or more do so to break records. There is nothing wrong about it, they simply have more degree choices. For any degree they choose, only three relevant subjects will be considered.

Mutambara assumes that all ‘15 pointers’ deserve scholarships and it is criminal not to give them scholarships. In other words, we shouldn’t have ‘thousands of 15 pointers’ because there are no resources and space for them at Harvard, Oxford and Cambridge.

This, to me, is a dangerous colonial mindset. These ‘top universities’ are ‘top’ because they take the cream of the world. They use money and their colonial legacy to lure the best minds in the world. Sending all our ‘top’ students to foreign universities means we are robbing our local universities of the great minds that can make the ‘top’ too.

We need more and more ‘15 pointers’ to supply our local universities and send some to foreign universities. There is no need to put a cap on the number of ‘15 pointers,’ we simply need to maintain a good standard of examination papers and to safeguard the integrity of the examination.

Former Deputy Prime Minister Arthur Mutambara
Former Deputy Prime Minister Arthur Mutambara

In Mutambara’s universe, education is a competition. For him, there must be a clear winner otherwise the competition becomes bereft of meaning. Is education a competition? Should it be a competition? The answer is NO! Students are unique individuals with widely varying circumstances and thus cannot be made to compete fairly.

A student from an elite school getting 15 points is, in many ways, not better than a student from a poor rural school getting seven points. Many progressive universities in the world have a deliberate bias towards these students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Mutambara’s obsession with 15 pointers exposes his narrow-minded approach to academic achievement and education in general.

To Mutambara, high pass rates are synonymous with grade inflation. In other words, he baldly asserts that students are passing en masse because the examinations are easier and ZIMSEC is giving free marks to the students.

This, to me, is an insult to all stakeholders who worked hard to ensure these students passed. Mutambara is criminalising passing! Advanced Level students were screened at Ordinary Level and thus have a very high chance of passing. Whereas the 2019 Ordinary Level pass rate was below 40 percent, the Advanced Level pass rate was, unsurprisingly, about 83 percent.

Moreover, most of the ‘15 pointers’ are from the traditionally easier subject combinations. According to ZIMSEC, the pass rate for those who took sciences (Mathematics, Biology, Physics and Chemistry) was a dismal 31 percent. Mutambara ignored all these pertinent statistics.

The fact that one school had 79 students with 15 points shouldn’t be surprising at all if one considers the underlying circumstances. Many schools in Zimbabwe screen students they take for Form 1 and for A’ Level. These schools only take the cream of the crop and thus have a very high chance of producing great results at Ordinary Level and Advanced Level.

In fact, this is the same practice that makes Harvard, Oxford and Cambridge ‘top’ universities. We can argue about the appropriateness of this practice, but we cannot be surprised when a school that took the very best produces 79 ‘15 pointers.’ These are elite schools with lots of resources, the disadvantaged schools still produced bad results.

Is there any evidence that ZIMSEC is inflating grades at Advance Level? Again, the answer is NO! Mutambara himself admitted that ‘once admitted into top global universities, students from our great country generally distinguish themselves.’ In other words, Zimbabwean students who get 15 points go on to excel at university all over the world. Why then is Mutambara arguing that it’s grade inflation?

Mutambara’s argument is based on the perceptions of Oxford University. He gave an example of a Zimbabwean graduate who was sent to Brookes University for a year because Oxford University downgraded his UZ First Class degree to Third. Was the downgrade objective? It certainly wasn’t because the student went on to prove his abilities. Mutambara’s arguments are, therefore, based on these mischievous perceptions of Zimbabwean students by foreign universities.

It is worrying that Mutambara, and those who support his views, are agitating for the cruel ‘bottle neck’ system of the colonial era. For them, only a few students should pass because our resources are limited. They can’t accept a situation whereby every student passes.

In their warped views, passing must be rare so that it becomes precious. Dear reader, take time to think about what becomes of the thousands of students condemned by our education system. Instead of criminalising passing, we ought to be criminalising failure.

A pass rate of 31 percent at Ordinary Level is unacceptably low, and ZIMSEC should do something about it. I have seen many students ‘condemned’ by the Zimbabwean education system excelling in other countries. The ‘outliers’ getting strings of A’s shouldn’t blind us to the fact that a huge majority of our students fail outrightly or get poor grades.

Kudzai Mutisi is a chemical engineering lecturer and former high school science teacher in South Africa

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