The suspicious seventies

As much as the cheers that the figure of 70.2% understandably elicited when Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga announced the 2011 matric pass rate this week, it must ring some alarm bells. It is true that a 2.4% increase on the year before is modest enough. It is well within the parameters considered acceptable worldwide in mass-scale public exams, where large fluctuations year on year suggest alarming dysfunction. But 10%? For that is the increase in merely two years.

We have been here before — in 2003 when a wholly implausible 73.3% pass rate was foisted on us as the outcome of four years in which increases as improbable as 11% and 7% were recorded. It was Kader Asmal who drove the results to those dizzy heights — to increasing public incredulity and scepticism. Should we be equally sceptical now? Not quite: the system over which Motshekga now presides is far more stable — that is, it provides more reasons than we had a decade ago to believe in improved results.

Rather, our concern now should be on how much the obsessive focus on the pass rate conceals. Easily the two most alarming figures this year are that 41 000 fewer full-time candidates wrote the exam than in the year before and that 81 000 did so part-time — facts about which Parliament expressed deep alarm late last year.

Remember that the pass rate, whether it is in the suspicious 70% range or not, is calculated on full-timers only. Official figures so far available for the 81 000 part-timers are scanty, but what there is suggests catastrophic performances among them — 31% passed accounting, 24% maths and 31% physical science, for example. That is massive human damage not even signalled by a complacent focus on the impressive-sounding 70.2%.

Then there is the disappearance of so many children from the cohort that started school in 2000 and wrote the 2011 matric exam — about the same number didn’t make it to matric as those who did. The 70.2% tells us nothing about them: Where are they?

The same figure’s ability to reassure us wanes when one notices that 75% of candidates failed to score university entrance passes. Of what value is the piece of paper they are now holding?

Motshekga certainly knows that the pass rate is not by itself an adequate indicator of the health of the whole system. But why then stage the matric-results carnival in a way guaranteed to make that figure the star of the show? For the second year in a row she did a Sepp Blatter, with the pass rate titillatingly pulled slowly from an envelope. The cheers accordingly followed. But let us at least be as aware of the alarm bells too.

Read the first editorial “Party for a divided party

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