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​Pupils’ 20% pass reflects crisis in maths teaching

Many South Africans were outraged by the recent announcement that, for 2016, pupils in grades 7 to 9 could progress to the next grade having achieved only 20% in maths.

The minimum has been 40%, provided that all other requirements for promotion are met. Pupils with less than 30% in maths in grade  9 must take maths literacy (this involves what the department of basic education calls “the use of elementary mathematical content” and is not the same as maths) as a matric subject.

Public concern is understandable. South Africans should be deeply worried about the state of maths teaching and learning. The country was placed second last for maths achievement in the latest Trends in International Maths and Science Study.

Research closer to home has shown that pupils, particularly from poorer and under-resourced schools, are under-performing in maths relative to the curriculum outcomes. These deficits compound over time, which makes it increasingly difficult to address learning difficulties in maths in the higher grades.

All of this means pupils may be in maths classes but they are not learning. The answer to this problem does not lie with making pupils repeat an entire grade because of poor mathematical performance.

Grade repetition is practised worldwide despite there being very little evidence for its effectiveness.

In fact, it can be argued that its consequences are mainly negative for repeating pupils. Grade repetition is a predictor of early school leaving.

Pupils who repeat grades and move out of their age cohort become disaffected with school. They disengage from learning and drop out of school.

Repeating a grade lowers motivation towards learning and is seldom associated with improved learning outcomes.

Grade repetition is also an equity issue. The Social Survey-CALS (2010) report found that black children are more likely to repeat grades than their white or Indian peers. This reflects the fracture lines that signal socioeconomic disadvantage in South Africa.

Repetition rates decrease as the education level of the household head increases. Poor access to infrastructural resources, such as piped water and flush toilets, are associated with higher rates of grade repetition. Boys are more likely to repeat than girls. There’s also an uncertain link between pupil achievement and grade repetition, particularly for black learners in high schools.

So why does grade repetition persist?

A recent survey of 95 teachers in Johannesburg showed how teachers believe the additional time spent in a repeated year allows pupils to “catch up” and be better prepared for the subsequent grade. This view is reflected in recent reports that teachers are against the new 20% concession that has stirred so much controversy. Their opposition is echoed by callers to talk shows, who assume that repeating subject content results in improved understanding.

But unless the reasons for a pupil’s misunderstanding of concepts are identified and addressed, any improvement is unlikely. Given that the deficits in mathematical understanding may stretch back to the foundation phase (grades one to three), it’s doubtful that merely repeating a grade in the senior phase is going to be sufficient for remediation. Furthermore, research conducted in South Africa reveals that teachers lack confidence in their ability to teach pupils who experience learning difficulties.

The department of basic education’s 20% concession indicates it knows grade repetition won’t achieve much.

Poor achievement in mathematics is not going to be solved by making pupils repeat their grade. Repetition effectively makes pupils and their families pay an additional — financial and emotional — cost for the system’s failure.

The public outcry should not be that these learners are being given a “free pass” and don’t deserve to be promoted. Instead, civil society must hold the government accountable for the crisis in maths teaching. —

Elizabeth Walton is an associate professor in inclusive education at the Wits School of Education.

The Conversation

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