Too much focus on matric pass rate, say analysts

South Africa’s obsession with the matric pass rate is set to resurface on Wednesday evening as Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga releases the 2011 matric pass rate but analysts have warned against focusing solely on this as it over-simplifies complex questions concerning the quality of education in the country.

The 2011 pass rate is expected to be very similar to last year. Professor Ruksana Osman, head of the Wits School of Education, believes we will see a very similar pass rate to that of 2010.
“We may see a percentage or two increase,” she said. This was indicative of incremental improvements in the education system.

The pass rate in 2010 was 67.8%—up a whopping 7.1% over 2009. At the time, this big leap was attributed to teachers and students being more familiar with the syllabus and having more past papers to work through in order to adjust to the type of questions that would be set.

Some experts also believe that government and community interventions, such as after-school and weekend study programmes put in place to compensate for the time lost due to the teachers’ strikes, had a positive effect on getting learners to take responsibility for their learning.

Osman said that as there had been no “radical inputs” to education over the 2011 school year it was unlikely that there would be any radical increases in the pass rate.

Eye on performance
The 2011 school year was not plagued by the strikes and disruptions that defined 2010. Instead there had been stability throughout the year and through the examination period.

But she said that, rather than simply focusing on the overall pass rate, it was important to look at the quality of passes that were being achieved.

“We need to do a detailed analysis of the quality of the passes. I am less interested in the increase in the pass rate and more interested in who is passing, which schools are performing well and whether more children are taking particular subjects,” she said.

One worrying trend, which has emerged over recent years, has been the declining number of students studying mathematics and physical sciences at matric level. “If that’s the case [this year], there’s something to worry about,” she said. Osman said that this was however a “systemic problem, not a matric problem” and one that should be addressed starting at foundation level.

Dr Jonathan Clark, director of the schools development unit at UCT’s School of Education, echoed these concerns, saying that maths is the “indicator subject” when it comes to interrogating matric results.

“The overall pass rate doesn’t really tell you much at all,” said Clark. “It’s a complicated story that gets oversimplified.”

“What’s happening at the subject level is really important,” he said, and looking at combinations of subjects—such as maths and physical sciences together—would help onlookers understand whether students would have opportunities to study further.

Official statistics
Maths and physical sciences are requisite subjects in the science, engineering and medical degree programmes, and are highly valued in commerce degree programmes.

Looking at the pass rate at individual schools would also show the level of functionality at those schools and help get past what Clark called the “thick icing of the ex-model C schools”.

The Western Cape for example, traditionally has very high overall pass rates but high achievement in its large numbers of well resourced, formerly white schools compensates for poor achievement in poorly resourced black schools.

“It’s a bi-modal system with high achievement balanced by very low achievement,” he said.

Clark also pointed out that while the official statistics only show the number of students passing with the minimum 30% or 40% (depending on the subject), it is only at the 50% mark that the real drop-off in pass rates becomes apparent.

The matric results will be released on Thursday morning.

Faranaaz Parker

Faranaaz Parker

Faranaaz Parker is a reporter for the Mail & Guardian. She writes on everything from pop science to public health, and believes South Africa needs carbon taxes and more raging feminists. When she isn't instagramming pictures of her toddler or obsessively checking her Twitter, she plays third-person shooters on Xbox Live. Read more from Faranaaz Parker

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