During the course of 2018, two curious events occurred affecting the assessment processes of the legal and accounting professions in SA.
First, the Law Society of SA took the unusual step of forcing candidate attorneys to re-sit their admission exams after a leak had been discovered in the initial sitting in August. The leak emanated from the inclusion of the model answer to an exam which was handed out with the exam paper itself. Keen to maintain the integrity of the exam process, the National Bar Examination Board rescheduled the exams to a later date - presumably with greater care paid to the process.
For prospective chartered accountants, the Assessment of Professional Competence (APC) exam, the old Board part 2, was convened and completed without incident in November.
However, the publication of the results last month came as a shock to the profession. As the last formal assessment in the journey towards the CA designation, the APC represents a deal-breaker for most candidates. Passing the assessment leaves them with just the administrative processes to complete before they are confirmed as members of the profession.
Failure, however, brings complications in career progression as the confirmation process is delayed by at least a year.
The profession's long-standing and historic burden of making its membership base more representative of the country's demographics requires a stable pipeline of black candidates to emerge. The black candidates' 2019 pass rate of just 48% therefore came as a setback to this goal.
Though the exam itself is relatively new as this was just its fifth sitting, the overall pass rates remained above 80% throughout the first four sittings. For black candidates, the latest pass rate of 48% is a wide shift from the 81% achieved by two cohorts.
At the same time, the pass rate for white candidates has remained above 86% throughout the history of the exam. This naturally forced stakeholders to interrogate whether the nature of the assessment offers an implicit advantage to white candidates or, better yet, whether the black candidates who sit for the assessment are at a distinct disadvantage.
Some experts say that part of the decline could be attributed to the unrest at universities since 2015, which affected the current cohort. This obviously fails to explain how such unrest would have affected black candidates more than white candidates and why such impacts were not evident through the Initial Test of Competence - the old Board part 1 - that all these candidates passed.
The Initial Test of Competence is written immediately after university studies and focuses on
the technical competencies of candidates.
On the other hand, preparation for the APC assessment is workplace-based rather than university-based. If black candidates underperform in this assessment, it is unlikely to be caused by long-hidden traumas of #FeesMustFall.
Rather, it is in the range and depth of workplace exposure where the key questions ought to be raised.
As the assessment seeks to simulate a workplace case study there is always the risk that some candidates who have never interacted with the sector in question will struggle to adapt within the time frames provided. Often black candidates don't get booked on big jobs and so don't get the exposure they need.
Additionally, candidates who have an exclusive focus on the public sector, for example, have to conquer a much steeper learning curve in preparing for the case study than others as they would not have experience in the private sector, which is what case studies are usually based on.
At the inception of the assessment, there was the option of manual and electronic writing. In the 2018 assessment, 98% of the candidates used electronic writing. Though candidates are expected to be familiar with the use of technology in the workplace, it is worth asking whether that environment is adequate preparation for an assessment under such pressures.
For candidates who are seeking to deal with the barrier of writing in a second language, the use of technology in a professional assessment brings particular anxieties, especially if access to technology is relatively new. The sum of all these issues and their nuances is something that needs a robust and thorough interrogation.
Failure to do so and to identify the underlying issues will condemn the next cohort of black APC candidates to a blind exercise where success will be a function of a lottery rather than the direct result of thorough preparation.
This article first appeared in The Business Times, Sunday Times on Sunday, 3 March 2019.