A mother has gone to the Human Rights Commission in a bid to keep her son in medical school at the University of the Witwatersrand, arguing that the Cohen60 marking process prejudiced school leavers, reports The Times.
She said that officials at the university dubbed her “the mother who wants the degree more than the son”. Her son failed his third year last year and has been dropped from the course.
The mother asked not to be named because she said her son suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and she did not want to expose him to further distress. She met Wits vice-chancellor Professor Adam Habib, and complained to the university council. When neither attempt was successful, she complained to the Department of Higher Education.
The report says her son achieved an overall mark of 59%, which is 1% below the minimum pass mark. The mother said the medical school’s use of a controversial standard-setting process for tests and exams, known as Cohen60, prejudiced school-leavers. Her son has applied to study medicine at six other medical schools next year.
Her complaint comes in the wake of demands by some medical students for the scrapping of Cohen60 because it uses the marks of the top performers in the class to determine a pass mark. The report says her standard-setting instrument uses the marks of the top-performing students in the class as “a comparator to see what was actually physically possible for the class to achieve in the assessment”. Some students said they did not know what the pass mark would be until after marking was done and the calculations had been completed.
According to the report, the Wits readmission committee said that in the student’s four years at Wits this was the second time he had failed. It said his mark for the practical component was 63%, below the class average of 71.8%.
Some students said pass marks for the different blocks “fluctuate” when tested against the Cohen60 method. The minimum pass percentage for a test or exam for medical students in the third, fourth, fifth and sixth years is 60%.
Third- and fourth-year medical students, and graduates pursuing the MBBCh degree for the first time through the graduate entry medical programme, are subjected to the Cohen60 method. The report says Wits and the University of Pretoria are the only universities to have a 60% pass requirement for medicine. All other universities in South Africa have a 50% pass requirement.
Lebone Mohlala, president of the medical students’ council at Wits, said most students were opposed to Cohen60 because they did not understand it. She said students felt it was unfair to have the pass mark fluctuating with each test.
A medical doctor, Leonard Muhango, who was a final-year medical student at Wits in 2017, added his voice to calls for the system to be scrapped. Muhango, based at Ladysmith Provincial Hospital in KZN, said the system was unfair.
But Wits faculty of health sciences dean Professor Martin Veller said the introduction of standard settings had reduced failure rates among third- and fourth-year medical students. He said the opinions of students opposed to the system were not the broad view. “The contestation always happens when students are failing and then we are told it’s unfair. I have not heard a student complain when there’s a fluctuation upwards (in the pass mark).”
He said in the report that there was nothing controversial about the method. “It does look at top performers and develops a statistical model of where the pass mark should be. What is wrong with students who do well? Is it acceptable to have doctors who measure themselves against mediocrity? We are keen on it because it shows we are being objective about our evaluations.”
The universities of KwaZulu-Natal and Cape Town said they did not use the Cohen60 method.
South African Medical Association chair Dr Angelique Coetzee said Cohen60 was used worldwide to ensure consistency in evaluating student performance in exams. “It is one of the more advanced methods of testing clinical knowledge in an academic environment.”
She said Wits was the first in the country to implement Cohen60. Poorly performing students would always label a system as being unfair, she is quoted in the report as saying.
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