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GUIDE: Assessing South Africa's matric exam results

A child walks to school in June 2013 in a village outside the town of Mthatha in South Africa's Eastern Cape province. Photo: AFP/Jennifer BruceThe annual release of matric results is traditionally the first big news story of the year in South Africa. Newspaper pages are filled with photographs of grinning school matriculants.

Stories of success and failure dominate television, radio and press coverage. And the education system comes under more scrutiny than at any other time in the year.

Examinations are normally written in October and November and the results are released early the following year. Pupils can view their results in major newspapers, at their schools or examination centres and on the department’s website.

A matriculant is considered to have passed and will be issued with a National Senior Certificate if they have achieved at least 40% in three subjects, including an official home language subject, and at least 30% in three other subjects.

In order to attend a university, a pupil must pass with a “minimum of 30% in the language of learning and teaching of the higher education institution” and achieve more than 50% in four subjects.

Useful tools for assessing matric results

A girl walks to her classroom at a school in Qunu in the Eastern Cape in this file photograph. Photo: AFP/Jennifer BruceThe department of basic education releases four documents which are useful tools in assessing matric results. The documents are published on its website when the results are released.

  • The national diagnostic report includes a detailed per-question analysis of pupils’ responses in each of the eleven examination subjects. This includes data on how many pupils wrote the examination, how many achieved 30% and above and how many achieved 40% and above in each subject. For example, the 2012 report found that many of the errors pupils made in the mathematics exam were as a result of a “poor understanding of the basics and foundational competencies taught in the earlier grades”.

  • The technical report focuses on “performance at the national, provincial and district level and…[reviews] the performance of the schooling system in terms of poverty indicators”. The report also includes the number of pupils who qualify to attend university, the performance of pupils by gender and pass rates within different percentage categories. The 2012 technical report, for example, revealed that the number of schools achieving a 0% pass rate decreased from 12 in 2011 to 2 in 2012.

  • The schools subject report analyses the performance of each school in key subjects such as mathematics, physical sciences, life sciences, accounting, history, geography, economics, business studies, English as a first additional language and maths literacy. The report is intended to “provide [education] districts with an indication of the subject performance across districts” and allow them to identify good and poor performance. The 2012 report, for instance, revealed that in the Eastern Cape, only 38.1% of pupils who wrote mathematics achieved 30% and above.

  • The schools performance analysis report looks at the performance of individual schools across the country. It lists the names of the schools and the pass rates they achieved in recent years. For instance, the 2012 report recorded that 428 schools had achieved a 100% pass rate, 2,585 obtained a pass rate of between 80% and 100% and 2,171 schools had a pass rate of between 60% and 70%. A further 1,835 schools with lower pass rates were identified as requiring “intervention”.

How else is SA's education system measured?

Between 2011 and 2014 the department of basic education conducted standardised literacy and numeracy tests for Grades 1, 6 and 9. These annual national assessments are intended to “measure learners’ progress and to establish the level they are performing at”.

The most recent results were released in December 2014 and provided some insight into the performance of pupils at different points in the education system. However, the manner in which the assessments were implemented has been sharply criticised because the results cannot be accurately compared across grades, over time and between geographical locations. Claims by basic education minister Angie Motshekga in December 2013 that the assessments showed an "upward trend" in educational performance have also been widely challenged.

The annual national assessments were postponed in 2015. The department has said that they are planning on introducing a new assessment system in 2018.

READ: Guide to assessing South Africa's schooling system

Are matric results a useful measure of an education system?

South African school children sing on Nelson Mandela's birthday in this file photograph. Photo: AFP/Stephane de SakutinThe department of basic education concedes that “contrary to popular belief, the matric pass rate on its own is not a good measure of academic achievement in the schooling system, nor was the pass rate ever designed for this”.

Significantly, matric results do not account for the large number of pupils that drop out of school between Grade 1 and matric. Nic Spaull, a researcher in the economics department at Stellenbosch University and author of South Africa’s Education Crisis: The quality of education in South Africa 1994-2011, writes that “[t]he annually-reported statistics from the National Senior Certificate (NSC) exam in Grade 12 are particularly misleading since they do not take into account those pupils who never make it to Grade 12". Of the 100 pupils who started school in 2005, only 51 wrote the matric exam in 2016, 37 passed and only 14 qualified to go to university.

Spaull used the example of South Africa’s Eastern Cape province where only 20% of pupils who started Grade 2 in 2001 went on to pass their matric exams in 2011.

Another problem is that pupils who do badly in certain subjects can elect to take easier subjects. Over time many pupils have moved away from demanding subjects in favour of the less demanding exam subjects. “…[I]t is revealing to note that over the four year period between 2008 and 2011, the proportion of pupils taking mathematics (as opposed to maths literacy) has fallen from 56 per cent to 45 per cent, as more pupils opt for the easier maths literacy,” writes Spaull.

Edited by Julian Rademeyer


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