A Test Question

Even though the school year here does not end until early December, exams have already started. The first exam at our school was Life Orientation. Life Orientation is a mandatory subject in South Africa, and it covers everything from Sex Ed, to Civics, to how to find a job. I think it is an excellent part of the curriculum. We could really use something like this in America, where people manage to finish High School without knowing that you have to repay things you charge on a credit card. But I digress…

Most of the final exams are authored by the provincial government. This means the teachers themselves have no control over the content of the tests. However, the teachers are responsible for grading the tests, including subjective portions like the essays. This creates for some interesting situations, and the way this is handled is by having someone higher up in the Department of Education check a random sample of tests to see if they are being graded properly–a process called moderation (I think). I’m not sure of the rationale for this whole process. It would make more sense to just have the tests graded by the government–this would eliminate the need to check up on the teacher’s work, and would get around the difficulty of getting thousands of teachers to use the same standards of test grading. It would also free up teachers–they are really swamped under the paperwork this time of year and it is making them less effective. Perhaps it is a cost issue.

Grading the exams can be especially challenging. Take a look at this zinger–read the passage and answer the questions:

I got into the taxi at the station and a guy got in next to me holding what I thought was a packet of chips. He was actually selling “Tik” from his chips packet while the police walked right past us.
“Tik” or “Straw” is the latest drug to hit the already drug ravaged Cape Flats communities. It can be made locally and cheaply.
The drug, which looks like crystals, is sold in cut off straws. Users smoke the crystals by placing them in a light bulb from which the filament has been removed. They heat the crystals in a glass globe and inhale the smoke it releases.
“Tik” gives users a big high and increased energy levels. One tik smoker said it made him feel like running a marathon. It also make users lose weight since it suppresses appetite. This effect has made it very attractive to school girls who are worried they are overweight but don’t realize that it could easily lead to full blown addiction. Users suffer from intense and aggressive mood swings. It can keep a user awake for days and removes all inhibitions.

Adapted from an article by Shihaan Mentor in “Just Youth”, July 2004

2.1.1 Identify the substance used in this article. (1)
2.1.2 Why is this drug likely to increase in popularity? (2)
2.1.3 Suggest some of the factors that could influence a teenager into taking this drug. (3)
2.1.4 Describe two behaviors that could result from this drug addiction. (2)
2.1.5 Suggest two behaviors that could result from removal of inhibitions. (2)

As far as I can tell this is not supposed to be straight up reading comprehension. Also, the numbers after the question are how many points each question is worth.

And the Answers:

2.1.1 Tik
2.1.2 It can be made locally and cheaply
2.1.3 Peer Pressure, Curiosity, Poverty (any relevant answer)
2.1.4 Loss of weight and suppression of appetite
2.1.5 Users suffer from intense and very aggressive mood swings and it can keep a user awake for days.

And now I ask, what are you supposed to do with a student who gives these answers:

2.1.1 Straw
2.1.2 It’s widely available and is believed to aid weight loss.
2.1.3 Wanting to skip sleep to cram for exams, media portrayal of the drug, stress
2.1.4 Stealing to get more money to buy the drug, not spending time with your non-addict friends
2.1.5 Unprotected Sex, Starting Fights

According to the key, none of these answers are correct (except maybe 2.1.3, where it states “(any relevant answer)” ). I would even argue that the answers to 2.1.4 and 2.1.5 here are better, since “loss of weight” and “suppression of appetite” are not behaviors–both are related to the behavior “eating less”, and I don’t think mood swings are the result of the removal of inhibitions. I was assisting with the marking ("grading" for you Americans) of the tests, and I found marking this question very frustrating. Perhaps there is some cultural or curricular barrier making this more challenging. The one teacher I spoke with about the bad answers just chalked it up to the test writers being too far removed from the classroom.

Still, I can’t help but think there are some students out there who would go from failing to passing if this question had been written a little better–it is worth 10 points out of 75 on the exam.


ryan m says:

Interesting stuff; and it bleeds over into the sciences and math as well. From what I’ve seen, marks are only awarded based on following the scheme on the memorandum…if a student solves a question correctly – but with a different method – a teacher does not have time to check and appropriate marks. In the rural school districts especially, where the teachers may not understand the questions well enough themselves to look for anything but the memorandum specific marks.


31 Oct 10 @ 7pm

david d says:

As they say ‘The most important part of reading is reading between the lines!”

I suppose they don’t do much ‘experimental’ testing of the questions beforehand. I don’t think the official answer for 2.1.4 even makes sense as I know the word ‘behavior.’

22 Nov 10 @ 2pm