Merely a month after the 2012 annual national assessments once again revealed appallingly low levels of literacy and numeracy among our schoolchildren, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga this week asked the country to believe that 73.9% of grade 12s are sufficiently literate and numerate to pass matric.
She painted a rosy picture: increased passes in all but one province, more university exemptions, soaring results in maths and science, and so on. There wasn't a thorn to be seen in the minister's rose garden.
Clearly, these results, which include the highest pass rate so far in post-apartheid South Africa, contrast starkly with assessment scores, such as 13% passes in grade nine numeracy. If she is correct in her belief that the matric exams constitute "the ultimate measure of achievements of 12 years of schooling", then the assessments constitute just one of the many thorns we must consider.
Equally, we need to scrutinise this "ultimate measure" more closely than she did; we must consider the pass rates as tools that can "hide more than they reveal", to use the phrase that Sizwe Mabizela, the chairperson of the state's quality assurer Umalusi, employed last week when he certified that the exams were "fair, valid and credible".
Elsewhere in this week's Mail & Guardian we focus on thorny realities such as the gross ongoing socioeconomic inequalities among schools and regions that the bland national and provincial matric results tend to obscure. For this we need far better, more finely grained data than the minister and her department are content to provide.
Most urgently, we need to know about the large number of children who enter grade one but who do not make it through to grade 12. It is commonly accepted that this figure is about 50%. Also, official data suggest about 40% of grade 11s routinely do not make it to grade 12, presumably because schools, under extreme pressure to produce good matric results, weed out their weaker pupils. What happens to them? The same question needs to be asked about the large number of part-time candidates – 81 500 this year. Their results are not included in the overall pass rate and are not released.
Until we have answers to such basic questions, Motshekga's claim that the 2012 results should "restore confidence" in our schooling will appear to be more like a political victory than an educational reality.