Equitable language practices in large-scale assessment: possibilities and limitations in South Africa
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This article is based on an HSRC study conducted for the Western Cape Education Department in which 75 000 Grade 8 learners were assessed in mathematics and language in 2006. The country's multilingual education policy is currently misinterpreted to mean that the learning of and use of indigenous African languages should be restricted to learning language as a subject beyond Grade 4. English and Afrikaans continue as the only languages of learning, teaching and assessment after Grade 4. Thus the language policy of the terminal years of apartheid continues in the present, except that African students now receive even fewer years of
home language education than before. The HSRC study demonstrates, however, that it is possible to design and implement multilingual large-scale system wide assessments beyond Grade 4. We discuss the development of the multilingual language and mathematics instruments, the international benchmarking and standard setting processes they were subjected to and the language
testing accommodations we employed. We demonstrate how, for the first time, language was assessed as both a subject and a medium of instruction. We are able to demonstrate through multilingual accommodations in the mathematics instruments that it is possible to offer some measure of linguistic equity to students across the curriculum in large-scale testing. The findings show sufficient evidence that student achievement is enhanced where the home language is used as a language of assessment in comparison with when a second language is used as the language of assessment. They further show that where language accommodations are made in mathematics assessment instruments, students make use of these and achievement appears to increase. The study and its findings are contextualised within an international theory of assessment in linguistically diverse contexts and the implications are offered as a contribution towards the quest for improved student achievement in the South African education system.