pixel Conference 2000 week 3 malcolm venter

Week 3 - Outcomes and Standards

 Assessing the Assessment of Outcomes Based Education  

Listing of Papers
Cape Town, South Africa

Down With Failure
ONE OF THE BASIC TENETS of Outcomes Based Education1, as expounded by William Spady, the so-called 'Father of OBE' who is continually paraded around South Africa to propagate a view of education which has met with very mixed reception in his country (and others), is the elimination of failure. So students are not required to pass from one year to the next - automatic promotion is at the heart of OBE (although certainly not invented by the creators of OBE). The motivation is sound: 'One of OBE's [and Goals 2000's'] major themes', says Julie Fox2, is that, 'All students shall succeed'.

The problem comes when this noble sentiment is taken further. This is how Abdul Mohamed3, a Spady adulator, puts it: 'In the old system, the students that didn't make the grade dropped out, and only the "successful" ones succeeded'.

One of Life's Great Lessons

This is simply not true. Not all who did not pass dropped out - many actually tried harder and succeeded later. Many of those who did leave school because they had failed learnt a lesson in life - that, in the real world, some succeed and some fail: and the amount of effort one puts into things is a great determiner. At any rate, failing at school does not necessarily mean that the pupil is doomed to failure evermore - many go on to do well when they mature, work harder or find their niche.

But the main problem here is that 'success' comes to mean nothing, and, in fact, one is merely bluffing children that they have achieved anything if one does not set some kind of minimum standard. Sykes4 sums up the situation as follows:

'By abolishing failure (or at least the recognition and consequences of failure) and redefining excellence to mean whatever anyone wants it to mean, we deprive success of meaning. In the ideal OBE world, everyone would feel like a success, without necessarily having to do much of anything to justify their self-esteem.'

Fictional Assumption

This notion, furthermore, is based on the idea that all children are by nature keen to apply themselves. This is mere fiction. Extrinsic motivation is also necessary to ensure that they get on with things - in much the same way that adults do not work for no pay. In 1975, when I visited about 25 schools in the UK, where they had recently switched over to the automatic promotion concept, pupils I interviewed admitted that they would work much harder if they had to pass the year.

Because success for all does not always succeed, there is the danger that marks will be inflated to cover up the failure of the system. David Biggs5 tells of a South African working as a part-time teacher in California who informed him that 'marks here start at 70%'. He added further that 'last year Berkley turned away 4,000 undergraduate applicants with perfect high-school marks' - by which he means not As but 100% - perfect! It's not surprising that he made himself highly unpopular because his class achieved an average of 'only 80%'. Sykes6 similarly quotes the case of a teacher in Georgetown, USA, who was berated because of the 'number of poor grades handed out' - which meant, in practice, that when her students did not do the work she expected them to do, she refused to let them pass. She says that the message she kept getting from her supervisors was, 'Keep the kids happy, even if you have to lower your standards'. But, she argues, 'when the children are absent 50 to 60 days a year, don't do the homework, and don't perform well on quizzes, do I help them?'

Down with Grades!

To avoid the situation where pupils may fail, even if the pass mark is lowered, an even more drastic view is propagated by extreme OBEists, namely the abolition of grades altogether. 'Grading lies at the core of how our current system operates', says Spady7. He complains, says Sykes, that grades pit students against one another, 'implying that achievement and success are inherently comparative, competitive and relative'. He therefore proposes that there should be a grading system with no failure and also no bad grades at all - nothing below a B; anything else is labelled as I (Incomplete and Insufficient) or N (Not done yet or Not met standard).8

Instead of a competitive system (which is norm-based), OBE advocates a criterion-based system, which means 'getting rid of the bell curve, phasing out grade point averages and comparative grading'9. What Spady and others forget, however, is that competition can serve as a motivator - as, indeed, it does in sport and other activities. Furthermore, some kind of norm-based test is essential to maintain standards10.

All Children Set Targets

The answer is to have both criterion and norm-based tests. At my school (Edgemead High School), for example, we also claim that all children can be a success. All pupils set targets for each subject in collaboration with their teachers. Then, on their reports, their results appear alongside both the grade average and their target symbols. We certainly find that pupils and their parents want to know how they compare with the norm; but, in the end, they rate themselves more against their own potential.

This dual system is in keeping with practices in the workplace, where there are appraisal systems which are developmental (i.e., they are criterion-based and often involve self and peer-assessment) and judgmental (which is norm-based, as it aims to rank people for jobs, promotions or merit awards). School should prepare young people for the real world - that is, it should be 'relevant' (to use another buzzword).

Down with Tests!

Then there are those that go even further: they advocate not merely the abolition of norm-based testing (which involves the same tests but individual scoring), but common tests altogether. Instead, we are told, we must access each individual. 'All learners', says Mohamed11, 'can learn and succeed, but not on the same day and in the same way'. No one would quarrel with that. But have they considered the practicalities beyond the kindergarten level? In the literature put out by the South African Education Department, the assessment process consists of assessing each pupil when the teacher thinks he or she is ready to be tested; and if he or she does not succeed, then he or she may literally try, try, and try again.

In practice, however, this is a nightmare. Imagine a high school teacher responsible for 100-200 pupils setting the individualised tests (even if they have much in common). Then, if any of the pupils do not meet the level required by the test, they are entitled to ask for (individualised) re-tests; and if they still don't succeed, they may ask again and again. So, at one time, a teacher could have certain pupils who have not yet been tested; others on test 2 (separate tests); yet others on tests 3 (separate tests), and so on! And all this at a time when teachers are being retrenched and new curricula are being introduced.

Robinson12 makes the point that: 'It is obvious that better quality will be obtained if we can compare an individual's starting and finishing achievements; but this may be administratively impossible on a large scale'. And what of schools that do not even have the capacity to handle old-style testing?

Down with Knowledge!

Despite all the disclaimers, OBE is antithetical to the teaching and assessing of knowledge. All examples of assessment that I have seen assess only skills or processes. And even if they were to have assessment of knowledge, it would be a bric-a-brac approach. This is how one writer describes the South African version of OBE:

'This has resulted in a curriculum that focused on a range of activities which are not necessarily designed to allow for coherent development of concepts - on the assumption that this will happen almost 'by accident'! It will be critically important (now) to add both horizontally (across learning areas) and vertically (over time) those concepts that are regarded as essential for each learning area and to use these to provide a context in which skills, competencies, attitudes and values can be developed by learners. If this not addressed, the South African education system will indeed be guilty of what Stephen Mulholland called 'confident illiterates.'13

What makes the whole situation ironical is that one of the seven 'critical outcomes' devised by our South African gurus is that learners will 'demonstrate an understanding of the whole as a set of related systems by recognising that problem-solving contexts do not exist in isolation'.

Down with Empowerment!
'Empowerment': another of those PC words (certainly in South Africa, at any rate) which are betrayed in practice. If one looks at the list of terms used, one wonders whether the architects of OBE are trying to undermine the confidence of teachers (whose morale is already low with having to cope with retrenchments, ever-increasing demands on them and escalating indiscipline on the part of children).

Here are some terms taken from a document produced in South Africa (these are in addition to all the other OBE terms): assessment criteria; performance indicators; performance levels; rubric (and rubrics grids); formative and summative assessment; portfolios; profiles; range statements; and so on. No wonder the commentator referred to above has this to say on this aspect:

'The language that appears to have been invented specifically to confuse and disempower people (while disempowering others) needs to be simplified. More emphasis needs to be placed on the concepts and thinking behind the words rather than the words themselves.' 14

It is ironical that this jargon-heavy approach should be introduced at a time when the world is generally promoting the idea of Plain English!


There is no doubt that OBE has many positive features. However, not everything about OBE is good. Some of its positive aspects were there in the best of traditional education. As Mulholland15 puts it: '. . . it is my impression that many good teachers use these techniques, combined with those which are proven and effective, and have been doing so for some time.' Even when this is not the case, many of the positive aspects of OBE, furthermore, can be achieved in non-OBE ways.

When it comes to assessment, then, let's avoid passively accepting the OBE way - otherwise we will be violating the very principles that OBE claims for itself.


Dr Malcolm Venter is the Founder Headmaster of Edgemead High School, in Cape Town, South Africa, and provides the following curriculum vitae.

  1. BA, BA (Hons), MA and PhD in English (all at Rhodes University, Grahamstown).

  2. High school English First Language teacher for 28 years.

  3. Co-author of an English language textbook series.

  4. Published numerous articles in various journals on the teaching of English.

  5. Founder and National Academic Co-ordinator of the English Olympiad (a national literary competition).

  6. Addressed various groups on the teaching of English.

  7. National Chairman of the South African Council for English Education.

  8. Served on various committees concerned with the English curriculum for schools.

  9. Moderator for Senior Certificate English in the Western Cape.

  10. Served on a national radio panel called 'Strictly Speaking'.


  1. Published a number of articles on educational issues in various journals, including the Internet.

  2. Founder Headmaster of Edgemead High School, Cape Town (since 1986).

  3. Deputy President of the National Union of Educators.

  4. Member of the Council of the National Association of Professional Teachers' Organisations of South Africa.

  5. Member of the Executive Committee of the South African Education and Law Policy Association.

  6. Travelled extensively: spent three months visiting British schools in 1975; attended four ICP Conferences.

  7. Member of Western Cape Education Department's Examinations Board.


  1. Born in 1947 at Uitenhage (a small town in the Eastern Cape of South Africa).

  2. Married to Morag, a school counsellor and English teacher.

  3. Two children, one a medical doctor and the other a physiotherapist.

  4. Our family, despite the different careers, shares a passion for the arts.

Malcolm Venter can be contacted by email at:



  1. Described by Stephen Mulholland in the (SA) Sunday Times as 'a faddish, experimental, expensive, complex, controversial and dangerous method which has been tried and, mainly, abandoned in several advanced countries'.

  2. Fox, Julie (1996): 'Outcomes Based Education: Preparing for a New World Order', Internet Newsletter.

  3. Mohammed, Abdul Majid (1997): 'An Outcomes-Based Curriculum, Framework for Languages', talk presented at Ohio University.

  4. Sykes, Charles (1996): Dumbing Down our Kids, St Martin's Griffin, p 74.

  5. Biggs, David (1998): 'Marked Down', Cape Argus (newspaper), May 1998.

  6. Op cit, p25.

  7. Spady, William G (1991): 'Shifting the Paradigm that Pervades Education' in Outcomes, Spring 1991.

  8. Mohammed, ibid.

  9. Fox, ibid.

  10. 'A prerequisite for quality control in education is the development of standardised tests' - Anton JM Luyten of the Netherlands, in a paper entitled 'Strategic Aspects of the Implementation of Standardised Tests' delivered at a Conference of the International Association for Educational Assessment in June 1995.

  11. Op cit, p25.

  12. Robinson, Dr Colin G (1995)" 'Looking for Added Value', paper delivered at the 21st Conference of the International Association for Assessment.

  13. 'Issues, Problems and Recommendations Pertaining to Curriculum 2005', paper prepared by the National Professional Association of Teachers.' Organisations of SA (NAPTOSA) (March 2000)

  14. NAPTOSA document.

  15. Op cit.

Week 1: 15-21 May 2000
Major internet tutorials

Week 2: 22-28 May 2000 - Theme: Healthy School Communities
Conference papers
Internet tutorial

Week 3: 29 May-4 June 2000 - Theme: Outcomes and Standards
Conference papers
Internet tutorial

Week 4: 5-11 June 2000 - Theme: Local School Management
Conference papers
Internet tutorial


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