Unpacking the achievement gap

7 Oct 2019 - 14:30
Academics can help close the achievement gap by advising students appropriately to ensure they don’t waste time on courses they don’t need, or at which they are unlikely to excel.


For many first-year students, the excitement of going to university can be dampened when, upon receiving their first set of test results, they are met with underperformance or even failure in courses at which they were expecting to excel.

More often than not, in trying to remedy the situation, the student becomes the focus: What can they do to improve their mark? What measures can they put in place to ensure a pass at the end of the year? With newfound freedom, adjustment challenges and the like, this is probably a good starting point in many situations.

It is, however, also important to consider the individual student’s background – the hurdles they’ve had to clear in reaching university and those still lying ahead. Furthermore, there is no denying that certain university courses pose a greater challenge than others, especially for students who have not enjoyed a privileged educational background.

This is a concept commonly referred to as the achievement gap, and basically comes down to the fact that while all students arriving at university may have equal access to tertiary education, they are not equally equipped to achieve academic success while there.

In a presentation titled “Troubling the Gap”, Suellen Shay, professor of Higher Education at the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Centre for Higher Education Development (CHED), recently shared some fascinating insights into the academic achievement gap between students of different races that prevails at UCT.

Mind the gap

“We might have good completion rates overall, but when we disaggregate the data we see that, yes, there is a performance gap between black and white students,” she said.

“We might have good completion rates overall, but when we disaggregate the data we see that, yes, there is a performance gap between black and white students.”

The achievement gap concept is, of course, extremely powerful in the way it exposes the glaring inequalities in South Africa’s education system. But unfortunately it also reduces the complexity of an intricately layered problem, which runs the gamut of the country’s socio-economic and political landscape.

As Shay pointed out: “It signals a problem, but it does not tell us what the solution to the problem is.”

She went on to argue that while universities may not have any control over a student’s prior education or their home circumstances – both of which may significantly impact the education gap – there is certainly a measure of academic responsibility that can be taken to improve a curriculum strewn with stumbling blocks.

“The gap (at least the part we have responsibility for) is a result of a range of curriculum issues that we have control over,” she said.

“The assumptions we make about what knowledge to include or not, assumptions we make about the starting point of a course and what students bring with them, what topics to cover, not cover, how much time, what order, how to assess and what to assess. These curriculum decisions can enable our students, or break them.”

Courses impeding graduation

One of the ways in which UCT is trying to gain a better understanding of the way in which its curricula might be aggravating the achievement gap is by paying serious attention to courses with consistently high failure rates – 25% or above for three consecutive years or more – across faculties.

“I actually feel quite hopeful about this, because it feels to me like there are things that we can do.”

Drawing on course performance data gathered from a cohort of students between 2015 and 2017, the Institutional Planning Department (IPD) identified 70 high-risk courses at UCT that may be impeding graduation (CIGs). Many of these happen to be required for first-year programmes and also typically have large enrolments with great diversity in the backgrounds and abilities of the class.

In analysing the data, it was found that, unsurprisingly, there is a strong relationship between race as well as language and university performance (although the latter does require some further investigation). In other words, a black student whose home language is something other than English is at much greater risk than a white student who grew up speaking English.

The data also revealed a strong relationship between National Senior Certificate (NSC) as well as National Benchmark Test (NBT) levels and university performance. While this is true for all CIGs, there seems to be a particularly stark correlation between NSC mathematics and performance in first-year university mathematics courses.

As the CIG research project progresses and more findings are made about individual courses, Shay believes that academics’ responsibility will become increasingly important in driving the necessary curriculum changes.

Hope for the future

“I actually feel quite hopeful about this, because it feels to me like there are things that we can do,” she said.

The achievement gap is in part a result of an articulation gap between what UCT students come with and what the institution’s curricula expect of them, Shay explained.

“We can use the findings revealed from the data analysis to re-examine our curricula. There is also a serious need for more flexibility within the curriculum to accommodate diversity of preparedness and different purposes that these ‘service’ courses serve.”

Finally, she said, if nothing else, academics should aim to advise students appropriately so they can avoid wasting time on courses they may not need and at which they quite possibly won’t excel.

“There’s a whole lot of things in terms of inequality and education that we have no control over,” Shay concluded.

“But these are things that we do have some control over.”

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. It was originally published on the UCT website.