Startling findings emerged when the state's quality watchdog Umalusi revealed details about its controversial "standardisation" of the matric exams.
The English home language question papers for last year’s controversial matric exams had the highest failure rates of all the home language subjects because most non-English speakers who attend former Model C schools do not have the option of choosing their mother tongue as their first language.
There were also wild inconsistencies in the levels of difficulty across exam papers in the nine African languages offered as home-language subjects.
These startling findings emerged on Wednesday this week when the state’s quality watchdog body, Umalusi, finally revealed details about its controversial so-called “standardisation” of the 2010 matric exams.
Applied every year, the standardisation process this time ignited greater public scepticism than usual because of the unexpectedly huge 7,1% increase in the 2010 pass rate of 67,8%—up from 2009’s 60,7%.
Umalusi’s press conference in Pretoria on Wednesday followed a month of increasing pressure for it to reveal more details about its standardisation—in particular the subjects in which marks were changed, by how much they had changed and what the raw marks (that is, pre-adjustment) were.
The watchdog body was also facing a court challenge mounted by City Press and Rapport in January to divulge these details.
English had the highest home language failure rates
When the 2010 results were announced on January 6, Umalusi revealed merely that it had adjusted marks in some subjects. It did not specify which subjects or the extent of mark changes.
On Wednesday, Umalusi named 19 subjects whose marks it had changed. But it stopped short of saying what the raw marks were before its standardisation processes were applied to these subjects.
The subjects in which Umalusi changed marks were: Accounting, agricultural sciences, civil technology, consumer studies, electrical technology, English home language, English first additional language, geography, isiXhosa first additional language, isiNdebele home language, isiZulu home language, life sciences, mathematics, religious studies, seSetho home language, Setswana home language, Tshevenda home language, Xitsonga home language and Siswati home language.
“We have found that English home language has the highest failure rates of all home language subjects as most non-English speakers who attend former Model C schools are forced to take the subject as the schools don’t offer their mother tongue as home language subject,” said Umalusi council chairperson Sizwe Mabizela at the conference. “So immediately these learners are at a disadvantage.”
“Moves are also under way to ensure that all home language exams are brought up to the same level of difficulty. Currently there is just too much variability in these papers, particularly the African languages,” he said.
Mabizela told the gathering that Umalusi was taking the unprecedented step of revealing its quality assurance and standardisation decisions to protect the integrity of the South African education system.
“In the absence of credible information from us, some so-called experts took the gap to peddle reckless and irresponsible commentary. Our failure to share this vital information with the public has the potential to damage the credibility of Umalusi and the qualifications which we assure,” he said.
“It is in the interest of protecting our education system that we are taking this step.”
‘Ammunition to attack’
Mabizela added that Umalusi’s mandate allows for the standardisation of raw marks “to ensure compatibility and consistency from one year to the next”. Responding to a question at the press conference, Mabizela was adamant that any upward adjustments of marks would not automatically result in a pass mark because “pass marks are only determined once school-based assessments are added in”.
Paddy Padayachee, acting director general of planning, quality assessment and monitoring and evaluation in the national basic education department, told the Mail & Guardian at the conference that the department had never doubted the integrity of Umalusi. He said the decision the reveal the adjusted subjects had demonstrated that there had not been any manipulation of marks.
Also at the conference, the secretary general of the South African Democratic Teacher’s Union (Sadtu), Mugwena Maluleke, said the union had always had confidence in the standardisation process.
“Standardisation is a process that is done each year and there is always transparency on the part of Umalusi. Questions were only raised this year because of the improvement in the pass rate,” he said.
He said they supported the decision to disclose the adjusted subjects now because if the process had been done haphazardly it may have “given people who did not have confidence in the education system ammunition to attack the education system”.