A response to misconceptions about the NBTs

What is the purpose of the NBTs?

The purpose of the NBT is four-fold:

  • To assess entry-level academic and quantitative literacy and mathematics proficiency of students;
  • To assess the relationship between entry level proficiencies and school-level exit outcomes;
  • To provide a service to HE institutions requiring additional information in the admission and placement of students; and
  • To inform the nature of foundation courses and curriculum responsiveness.
 Why were the NBTs introduced?

The NBTs evolved from a suite of tests developed for alternative admissions in the 1980s:

  • to identify students at risk in historically disadvantaged schools,
  • to provide a basis for the development of appropriate courses and curricula,
  • and to provide alternative access to university in the context of the then-racially fragmented South African Higher Education system.

In the 1990s, a further aim and use of the tests arose, which was to identify talented students whose Senior Certificate results did not make them eligible for selection to higher education studies.

In the 2000s, the National Senior Certificate was introduced and the Higher Education sector also became acutely aware of its own challenges in terms of low throughput and high drop-out rates.

Can you pass/fail the NBTs?

It is not possible to pass or fail the NBTs. The tests provide an indication of the readiness of candidates for the demands of higher education. NBT scores place candidates within a benchmark category and each university (and sometimes, different Faculties within the same university) use these in a slightly different ways to assist with decisions about admissions, placement and teaching and learning support. “Placement”, in this instance, refers to courses or curricula that are put in place to assist students who require academic support.

What does the ‘Benchmark’ in NBTs stand for?

The NBTs assess and evaluate student test scores according to criteria that are considered appropriate for degree, diploma and higher certificate study at institutions of higher learning. These criteria are reflected in the benchmark categories of performance for each of our domains (Academic Literacy, Quantitative Literacy, and Mathematics). The NBT benchmarks are revised every three years, as part of good testing practice.

How many benchmark categories are there and
  • what does each mean for students (parents and teachers)?
  • what does each mean for lecturers?

There are three benchmark categories for each of the three NBT tests which place a student’s test performance on the NBTs into: Proficient, Intermediate, and Basic categories. These benchmark categories provide information to universities about an applicant’s readiness for university and what kind of support the university needs to provide to students performing within these categories.

The benchmarks enable students, and their parents and teachers, to assess at a glance their readiness for university. Students should evaluate their scores against the admission requirements provided by the university to which they are applying and be prepared to work accordingly.

Through the NBT benchmarks, university lecturers are able to identify areas within the curriculum that need to be emphasised or amended in order to contribute to the academic success of their students.

What is a diagnostic test?

Educational diagnostic testing is a form of assessment that occurs before instruction begins. The purpose of administering diagnostic tests is to try to determine what students already know about the concepts and skills to be covered by instruction.

One of the strengths of the NBTs, and the way in which they can assist students and their university lecturers, is in their diagnostic ability. A recent report on the NBTs and the NSC by the Boston Consulting Group argues that the NBTs have strong diagnostic value “because of the way they are able to analyse students’ performance at a sub-domain level (i.e. performance within the broad constructs of ‘literacy’ and ‘mathematics’). The NSC simply cannot do this in its current form.”

Students, therefore, can use their NBT scores to request assistance or support for the academic areas in which their performance is weak, and their lecturers can use the information to develop teaching materials that respond directly to areas of weakness in their classes.

What are some of the best ways to address the retention and graduation challenges faced by SA HE?

The Council for Higher Education report of 2013, “A proposal for undergraduate curriculum reform in South Africa”, showed that graduation from a South African university in regulation time (three or four year degree) is at 27%, and that the student attrition rate stands at 40%.

The NBTs are more relevant now than ever before. Their strong diagnostic ability can be leveraged to address these challenges of low throughput (graduation) and high drop-out rates by ensuring that lecturers are armed with the knowledge they need to ensure that students are retained and can succeed at university.

What information is available to students (parents and teachers) regarding the NBTs?

While past papers of the NBTs are not distributed, the following resources are available from the NBT website to assist candidates who wish to prepare themselves for the tests:

  • Exemplar questions for all three domains, available in English and Afrikaans.
  • Educator’s booklets for all three domains, to assist in preparing learners, available in English, Afrikaans, Xhosa, and Zulu.
  • A series of videos, aimed at educators, to assist them in preparing their learners for the tests.

Essential NBT information

What are the National Benchmark Tests?

The National Benchmark Tests (or NBTs) are a set of tests that measure your academic readiness for university. You will be tested on three domains: Academic Literacy, Quantitative Literacy and Mathematics. Academic Literacy and Quantitative Literacy are combined into one 3 hour test (AQL), which is written in the morning (from 8.30am) and Maths (MAT) is written for 3 hours in the afternoon after a lunch break.

When and where can I write?

There are 25 national test dates. The first test of the cycle was on the 26th of May, and the last will be on the 5th January 2019. We have many venues around the country. Visit our website to find our dates and venues.

Are they compulsory?

The NBTs are compulsory at some, but not all universities. If you plan to apply to a range of universities, it would be safest to write the NBTs so that you have the scores if they ask for them with your application. If you plan to apply to just one or two universities, you should check with them to find out whether the NBTs are a requirement.

Should I write before or after applying to university?

That depends on the university. Some only require you to have registered for the NBTs when you apply to the university, while others need you to have written by the time you apply. This is important, as you don’t want to send an incomplete application to a university. Check with them to find out what they need.

The Maths test:

You only need to write the Maths test if you plan to apply to a course that requires maths (like Commerce, Health Sciences, Science, and Engineering). If you’re unsure, check with the university you’re applying to.

You are not allowed a calculator during the Maths test, so make sure you know how to do the simpler calculations without one. Don’t worry: the questions are asked in such a way that a calculator is not necessary. A formula sheet and paper for working out is provided. No marks will be given for working out and there is no negative marking.

The AQL test:

Everyone writes the AQL. Academic Literacy can be compared to Comprehension. You will be given texts similar to those you’d be faced with in university and asked about your understanding of them. Quantitative Literacy can be compared to Mathematical Literacy. You will be given graphs, tables, etc, to interpret and asked real world problems.

All the questions are multiple choice. The AQL has timed sections of between 25 and 30 minutes each. The Maths does not.

How do I prepare for the NBTs?

We don’t make past papers available. Any organisation that claims to be preparing you for the tests is not really doing so, as their courses are not endorsed by us and they have not seen our tests. If you are unsure of any of your maths concepts, make sure you clear those up with your teacher beforehand. Making sure you know how to read and interpret graphs and tables, etc, would also be helpful for the QL part of the AQL test.

Check in on test day is at 7.30am. You’ll start writing at 8.30. Lunch will be at approximately 11.30 until 12 and then you’ll write from 12 until 3. We usually advise parents to fetch at about 3.30.

If you’re going to be writing both AQL and MAT, make sure you pack a good lunch. Your day will be long and tiring and you’ll need sustenance!

What if I fail?

You can’t, strictly speaking, fail the NBTs. Your scores place you in a benchmark (see our website for details) and each university and sometimes, different Faculties within each university, use your scores in a slightly different way. Check with them to find out which benchmark you need to get into for them to consider your application.

Remember that these scores are used in conjunction with your NSCs, and also that most universities will not use the NBTs to exclude you. Many of them use them to decide on the kind of academic support you’ll need after you’re admitted.

If you really feel you could have done better on your first try, you may write the tests again. You may write twice in one year. Again, though, check with the university to which you’re applying: some accept your best scores, while others will only accept your first scores.

Please visit our website for more details. Look particularly at the “Applicants” and the “About” tabs. We cover all your FAQs there. 

All the very best of luck to you all and please don’t hesitate to contact us via our Facebook page.

The articulation gap and the NBTs

Prof. Jonathan Jansen’s article, “Dear Grade 12 pupil: Let’s talk about your matric pass“, addresses matriculants who will this year become first year university students. He criticises South African Basic Education and argues it is in dire straits, touches on what university applicants should expect when they start tertiary education, and instructs them on how to conduct themselves when they become students.

Included in the article is this passage, which could be used as a concise explanation for the use of the National Benchmark Tests (NBTs) by South African universities. Jansen points out that while school has taught learners how to memorise and repeat facts, university requires critical thinking:

“The real test of how much and how well you know comes when you enter university. Here the rules are different. It will not help you in a good university to memorise and repeat facts. What will be tested is your ability to think critically, independently and thoughtfully. The smart scholars among you will, for the first time, experience difficulty in one or more university subjects.”

While the NSC examination is a school-leaving test, and tests whether a candidate has mastered the school curriculum, the NBTs are a university entrance exam, and test whether an applicant is ready for tertiary education. As Jansen points out, school and university are quite different environments. Success at school does not necessarily equate to success at university. The NBTs assess the ability to combine aspects of prior learning in competency areas that directly impact on success of first year university students.

There is a responsibility on the part of South African universities to address the problems of the “articulation gap” (discontinuity or discrepancy) between school and university, as well as the distressingly high university drop-out rates (almost 50% in 2015). The NBTs are one of the tools that can be used to help address these issues. By identifying academic strengths and weaknesses using their applicants’ NBT results, universities are able to make provision for academic assistance and support for these students. 



Is there still time to write the NBTs?

Many of you have asked whether there is still time to write the NBTs. This question can be answered in two ways:

1.Yes, there is still time to write the tests, because:

…there are five more national test dates for this cycle, which means we are offering five more chances for you to take the tests at a variety of venues all over the country. 

  • 25 November 2017
  • 2 December 2017
  • 3 December 2017
  • 5 January 2018
  • 6 January 2018

Find out where you can write the tests here.

2.No, there might not be time to write the NBTs for admission to university in 2018.

The closing date for applications to many universities has passed. View this list from EduConnect to find out whether applications are still open at the university to which you plan to apply. 

Some universities require you to have written the NBTs before you are admitted, while others only require you to write the tests during your first month at university. 

Contact the university to which you’re applying to find out whether they expect you to have written the NBTs.

If you’re planning on writing the NBTs in the next few months, register now by clicking here.



Why this blog?

This aim of this blog is to give NBT writers, their parents, and their educators some insight into the whys and hows of the NBTs. 

  • Why do you have to write the NBTs?
  • How should you go about finding more information about them?
  • What exactly is “Academic Literacy” and “Quantitative Literacy”? 

These and other questions will be answered here. You’ll also get the opportunity to ask us questions by posting a comment to any of our blog posts.

Spend a few minutes reading some of our posts, and you’ll be equipped to register for and write the NBTs in no time.

Happy reading!