Matric pass welcomed and questioned

It’s a “whopping” increase in the matric pass rate, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga said triumphantly on Thursday morning. But education specialists were immediately divided on the question of whether so unexpected and so huge an improvement is educationally both believable and reliable as a true indicator of pupils’ aptitudes.

After much anticipation the 2010 matric results have finally been released. The M&G spoke to some of the candidates about their results, the World Cup and strike distractions, as well as their plans for the year ahead.

Beyond that, questions remain about the performance of children in rural and township schools, in particular whether these most disadvantaged of pupils recorded similarly vast increases in achievement.

At 67,8%, the pass rate for the 2010 national senior certificate (NSC) outstrips 2009’s 60,6% by 7.2% and all nine provinces recorded increases in their pass rates as well.

Motshekga’s “whopping” 7% now makes 2010 only the third time since 1994 that so large an increase has been achieved: 2000 showed a 9% improvement over 1999 and 2002 recorded a 7,2% increase.

Big fluctuations from one year to the next in the results of exams written by a substantial number of candidates are unusual, education consensus worldwide suggests.

Writing this week in the Mail & Guardian, watchdog body Umalusi’s chief executive, Mafu Rakometsi, says: “Standardisation [of results] works on the widely accepted assumption that, for large populations, the distribution of aptitude and intelligence does not change appreciably from one year to the next; and that it is therefore reasonable to expect that, all things being equal, this year’s cohort of learners should perform at a level comparable to last year’s cohort.”

But the improved results are not worrying, said Martin Prew, director of the Centre for Education Policy Development, the well-respected NGO that originated as the ANC’s education think-tank.

“I see no reason to question these results,” Prew said. “They develop trends of improvement at provincial level that we started noticing a while back.”

Provinces with low levels of political interference in education appointments have been able to maintain “solid, consistent management” and this explains so “substantial an increase”, Prew said. He singled out KwaZulu-Natal and the Northern Cape and, to some extent, Gauteng, as exemplary in this regard.

“Where you would worry about the credibility of the results is if you see data that is counterintuitive,” Prew said. By this measure, the fact that Mpumalanga’s pass rate “increased at all is surprising”—but other than that, “I don’t see anything worrying about the results”, he said.

But other experts question how reliable the 2010 results are as a real test of ability and—especially—as indicators of readiness to enter university.

“It is difficult to state with any confidence what the precise meaning of the NSC results is,” said Nan Yeld, dean of the Centre for Higher Education Development at the University of Cape Town. “That is, precisely what inferences can be made about what students know and can do in each rating level.”

Yeld said four areas provided difficulties for universities and the public in making sense of the results:

  • In Umalusi’s standardisation process, raw marks are altered (and South Africa is apparently unique in doing this). But the public and higher education admissions officers are not told of the magnitude of adjustments to marks, or in which subjects they were made;

  • Several subjects, such as the key ones for higher education — maths ,mathematical literacy, science and life sciences—are operating on a “reduced curriculum”, Umalusi said. But precisely what the reduction means is not clear, neither in the coherence of the curriculum nor its level of cognitive challenge;

  • The so-called “site-based assessments” (that is, the marks awarded by schools themselves), which constitute 25% of the final NSC results, tend to inflate the results and much more work needs to be done on standardising the quality of these assessments within and across ­provinces; and

  • Life orientation, a compulsory subject, has serious problems in that the marks are much too high and standardising these assessments remains problematic. In 2010 the pass rate in this subject was 99,6%, with 98,8% of the candidates obtaining 40% or more.
Aside from the university-entrance passes—which 23,5% of full-time candidates achieved—questions have also been raised about real levels of achievement in South Africa’s most disadvantaged schools.

“While we cautiously welcome the overall increase in the global picture, these statistics hide what is happening in townships and rural schools,” said Doron Isaacs, coordinator of Equal Education, a Cape Town-based NGO.

“What happened in the 400 mud schools in the Eastern Cape, for instance? And in Khayelitsha, the 50,5% pass rate there last year was lower even than the Eastern Cape’s,” Isaacs said.

“The real inequality in our education system, which is so stark, is not being put before the public,” he said.

2010 results at a glance

  • 67,8% of the 537 543 full-time matriculants passed

  • 642 001 learners wrote the exams. This figure includes 104 458 part-time learners, as well as some candidates from independent (private) schools

  • 23,5% of the full-time candidates achieved university-entrance passes (up from last year’s 19,9%)

  • 58 subjects were written

  • Quality assurance body Umalusi retained ‘raw” marks in 39 of the 58 subjects

  • Umalusi took marks up in nine subjects and down in 10

  • Provincial pass rates: Gauteng—78,6% (last year: 71,8%); Western Cape—76,8% (75,7%); North West—75,7% (67.5%); Northern Cape—72,3% (61,3%); KwaZulu-Natal—70,7% (61,1%); Free State—70,7% (69,4%); Eastern Cape—58,3% (51%); Limpopo—57,9% (48,9%); Mpumalanga—56,8% (47.9%)

  • Most improved province: Northern Cape (11% increase)

  • 504 schools (out of 5 915 nationally) achieved a 100% pass and 127 of these were in the three poorest poverty categories (that is, quintiles one to three)

  • 18 schools recorded a 0% pass rate

  • 263 034 candidates wrote maths and 124 749 passed (down from 133 505 in 2009)

  • 280 836 candidates wrote maths literacy and 241 576 passed (up by 44 910 from 2009)

  • 205 364 candidates wrote physical science and 98 260 of them passed (up from 81 356 in 2009)

David Macfarlane

David Macfarlane

David Macfarlane is currently the Mail & Guardian's education editor. He obtained an honours degree in English literature, a fairly unpopular choice among those who'd advised him to study something that would give him a real career and a pension plan. David joined the M&G in the late 1990s. There, the publication's youth – which was nearly everyone except him – also tried to further his education. Since April 2010, he's participated in the largest expansion of education coverage the M&G Media has ever undertaken. He says he's "soon" going on "real annual leave", which will entail "switching off this smart phone the M&G youth told me I needed".  
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