A Wits University medical school professor has referred to the marking system used for assessing third and fourth-year medical students as a “short-cut method used to reduce costs”. Dr Thifhelimbilu Luvhengo, clinical head of department of surgery at Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital, says the Cohen 60 method is cheaper than other alternatives but “an assessment which is fair, reliable, valid and defensible,” should be used instead.

Luvhengo was speaking to Wits Vuvuzela about a complaint laid to the office of the Public Protector on April 15, in which a mother of a former Wits medical student, claimed her son had been unfairly prejudiced through the use of the system. The student was in third-year and is currently studying a different degree.

“The entire research for Cohen, speaks for itself [that] it shouldn’t be used for high-stakes exams,” said the mother.

Cohen 60, an internationally recognised form of assessment, makes use of the top performing students’ marks to calculate a class average. The class average is typically 60% of the marks of students in the 95th percentile (students who have received higher marks than 95% of the rest of the students). The class average in each instance determines the pass mark for the class as a whole.

The marking system was introduced to Wits in 2016.

Luvhengo believes Cohen 60 “is not advisable to be used for high stakes exams” as “Cohen doesn’t look at the content or the curriculum, it just looks at the raw marks from the computer and determines who is going to be allowed to pass,” said Luvhengo.

Dr Martin Veller, dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences says Cohen 60 is used to test the competency of students and it is a fair assessment used to test knowledge.

Veller said Cohen 60 had been tested against Angoff, a method which relies on experts determining the pass mark and was found to be more “efficient and accurate,” adding that Cohen 60 had been reviewed by a panel of specialists in 2017 and continues to be reviewed.

Fourth-year MBBCh student, Thomas Walzl said Cohen 60 is “quite terrible, completely illogical”, and there are a few arguments that show the assessment should not be used.

“The first argument is that the system inherently assumes some people should have to fail and some have to pass,” said Walzl.

Veller said Cohen 60 does not target particular students and it was impossible for marks to be manipulated.

Walzl said he has a different perspective of the assessment as both his parents are medical lecturers at the University of Stellenbosch and “they know about the system, they know it is not right.”

One of the ways in which medical students are assessed is through multiple choice questions using Cohen.

Walzl said medical students do not think in terms of multiple choice questions and “you don’t get a patient with four options and [choose] which one is right.”

Luvhengo said a proper form of assessment is subject matter that is driven by the knowledge of the syllabus and is assessed by judges or individuals who are experts on the course, which according to Luvhengo is “labour intensive”.

A fourth-year MBBCh student, who wished not to be named told Wits Vuvuzela “there is no full assessment of your capabilities” and “by the time you hit fifth year, you aren’t fully equipped to be in your clinical years.

“It doesn’t make any sense for the testing system to be based on the pass mark [of] the top tier student. One day you wake up and your mark is 3% lower because a couple of people have dropped out of the degree,” the student said.

“The vast majority of students pass and we are absolutely proud of our students,” said Veller.

“We should not be talking about the issue of how many students are passing, Cohen cannot encourage excellence,” said Luvhengo adding that “Cohen is not interested in the learning outcome.”

The public protector’s office has instituted a probe into the Wits faculty of health sciences after it received the complaint about discrimination due to the use of the Cohen 60 system. In a response to questions, Oupa Segalwe, spokesperson for the Public Prosecutor said the “public protector could only get involved to the extent that she focuses on whether the university complied with the Promotion of Administration Justice Act. Whether the university properly communicated to the students about the system ahead of its roll out and offered the students the necessary support in relation to the system.”

The Public Protector will produce “a report pertaining to the outcome of the conciliation process within six months,” said Buhle Zuma, Communications Officer from Wits.

FEATURED IMAGE: Wits medical students have raised concerns about Cohen 60 assessments. Photo: Lwazi Maseko