/ 21 December 2021

The problem with schools boasting 100% pass rates

A college accused of leaking a matric maths exam paper last year is among 18 schools that obtained a 0% pass rate in the national senior certificate exams.
The general public is most often unaware of certain manipulations that enable some schools to claim their 100% pass rate records and the prestige that comes along with it. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

Many schools are preparing their “100% matric pass rate” announcements before the official results have even been announced. Over the past two decades, being able to claim a “100% pass rate” seems to have become the be-all-and-end-all in South African education. But how did we get here?

The general public is most often unaware of certain manipulations that enable some schools to claim their 100% pass rate records and the prestige that comes along with it. Some may do this to uphold the reputation or prestige of the school, while others considered to be under-performing may do this as a way to show improvement. It’s a reassuring statistic and everyone likes a number.

However, while every school, educator and student has a right to be proud of their matric results, we must change the mindset about pass rates being the most attractive selling point for schools. For surely, there are other vital factors that are just as compelling when considering what makes a school “good”? And, perhaps we need to consider the most crucial factor of all, that it comes down to what is in the best interests of the learner.  

What’s in a pass rate?

Schools are able, to a certain extent, to somewhat guarantee their pass rates, and it often starts with identifying and rooting out the learners who could be at risk of failing before they even reach Grade 12. Characteristically, “high risk” learners are identified, and their parents are asked to find an alternative place for them to write their final exams – as “private candidates”. So that their results are not included in the school’s results. The stigma and loss in confidence this places on the learner can be detrimental to their performance, as they write in an unfamiliar environment without their peers.

There are also reports of learners being “failed” in Grade 11 and encouraged to move schools, informed that if they move, their transcript will state that they in fact passed Grade 11. The disruption in moving from one school to another so close to Grade 12 can have severe effects on performance as learners readjust to their new school, peers and teachers. Manipulation also occurs when teachers strongly coerce subject changes in areas where the learner is struggling, placing even more pressure on them to pick up another subject and try to catch up on three years’ worth of learning. During such a key milestone in their lives, these practices have a profound impact on learners, their self-esteem as well as their emotional and cognitive functioning.

Relooking what makes a school “good”

Having a 100% pass rate does not necessarily make for a good school. Parents need to reconsider their obsession with a pass rate as there are many other factors at play. One of the most important points to consider is whether a school has a history of maintaining the correct academic standards that effectively and realistically prepares learners for final examinations.

One must also look at whether the assessments are correctly set according to the Blooms taxonomic levels as laid out in the curriculum. Some schools set the standard so high that it forces weaker candidates out before they reach finals. Their argument being that it better prepares students who will likely do better in final exams (which is not always the case). Others set a lower standard so that students appear to be getting higher marks during school, but this is made apparent when finals are written at the higher standard. Another would be the teacher presence in the classroom (whether that be in-person or online) and whether they are delivering the curriculum properly and professionally.

It is the schools that are transparent about their real pass marks that should truly be celebrated. The schools that guide their learners to the best of their personal capabilities, encouraging them to do their best in their final examinations – even if it’s a possibility that they may not obtain the pass marks required. These are the schools that give even their “high risk” learners the confidence to do their best, knowing full well that if the child should fail there are other ways for them to be successful in life.

A school’s only duty is to deliver the syllabus in the best learning environment possible, dependent on resources, and assist learners who struggle along the way. Schools should welcome all Grade 12 students who believe they have a chance at obtaining their matric since it is their choice to write and is a reflection on them, not on the school.