Why the matric pass rate is not a reliable benchmark of education quality

Comments 10

Jacob Zuma has hailed the matric pass rate as a “significant improvement”. But is the education system "on the right track”? As we discovered, matric results are not a reliable barometer of education quality.

This article was updated with new information on South African school’s high repetition rates on 11 January 2018.

For the fifth year in a row, South Africa’s education authorities have announced dramatic improvements in the matric pass rate.

“[W]e are sending a strong message that basic education under the new administration has the capacity to improve the quality of education in South Africa,” Angie Motshekga, the Minister of Basic Education, said this week as she made the announcement.

“[T]his is the best matric class since 1994,” South African president Jacob Zuma enthused. “We are…pleased to note this consistently upward trend in the matric results, with the pass rate going from 62.6% in 2008, dipping to 60.6% in 2009, only to rise to 67.8% in 2010, 70.2% in 2011 and 73.9% in 2012.” (Note: It hasn’t been entirely consistent. As Zuma himself pointed out, the pass rate fell by two percent in 2009.)

A ‘massive fraud’

South African children attend school on March 13, 2009 under a tree in the Eastern Cape village of Libode. Photo: AFP/Gianluigi GuerciaOthers have been far less complimentary.

In a scathing opinion piece, Jonathan Jansen, the vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State and a prominent commentator on education, wrote that the country’s education system was a “massive fraud”.

Government “wrongly, but conveniently” used the matric results as “a barometer of the state of the school system” when all other data “reveal we have been stagnating, or doing worse”, Jansen argued.

The opposition Democratic Alliance has called on Motshekga to “institute a full-scale independent audit of the 2013 results”, citing concerns over the quality of the markers, the process of moderation and the high dropout rate.

‘On the right track’

While conceding that there is “still a lot of work that needs to be done”, Motshekga remains adamant that education in South Africa is on the “right track”.

Addressing a business briefing hosted by The New Age newspaper, Motshekga said that the pass rate – which has improved from 60.9% in 2009 to 78.2% in 2013 – is “an indication that indeed the system is on the right track”.

She also claimed that “[t]here is overwhelming evidence that we are improving learner performance”.

Is the system really on the right path? And has the quality of education in South Africa improved along with the pass rate?

Minister contradicted by her own department

South African Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga with President Jacob Zuma at the European Union headquarters in Brussels. Photo: AFP/Georges Gobet For starters, Motshekga’s claim that the increase in the pass rate “is an indication that indeed the system is on the right track” is contradicted by her own department.

The department of basic education states on its website that “[c]ontrary 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”. Rather, the pass rate serves as a “measure of the opportunities open to our youths”.

It goes on to add: “Comparing pass rates in different years is in fact not like comparing apples to apples… Examinations like our matric are simply not designed to compare the performance of the schooling system across years. They are designed to test whether the individual learner qualifies for a certificate, based on the subjects the learner has chosen.”

The department suggests that “[i]f one wants to compare how well the system is doing, one should turn to testing systems like the international TIMSS and SACMEQ programmes, where South Africa has participated for some years.”

High dropout rate skews results

A further flaw in using the matric pass rate as a barometer of national performance is that thousands of school pupils drop out of the system or take more than 12 years to reach matric.

For example, when the 2013 matric class started grade one in 2002, there were 1,261,827 pupils. But by the time they came to sit for their final exams, there were only 562,112 in the grade.

Repetition rates are high in South African schools. The latest numbers from the department of basic education show that 12% of all pupils were repeating a grade in 2015. Nearly a quarter of all pupils in grade 10 were repeating the year.

An analysis by Stellenbosch University education economist estimated that just over 50% of young people manage to obtain a matric pass.

A group of schoolchildren in central Pretoria. Photo: AFP/Alexander Joe“[The pass rate] doesn’t tell us about the large number of children who didn’t make matric, who didn’t pass grade ten, who didn’t pass grade 11 and who failed at grade 12,” says Mary Metcalfe, former head of the Wits University School of Education and a former provincial government minister for education in South Africa’s Gauteng province.

Pupils are choosing easier subjects

Whether as a result of school pressure or individual choice, pupils are increasingly taking easier subjects.

In 2010, 263,034 full-time pupils wrote mathematics. This decreased to 241,509 pupils in 2013. Conversely, numbers of full-time pupils writing mathematical literacy, the easier subject, increased from 280,836 in 2010 to 324,097 in 2013.

The department of basic education acknowledges the impact this has on the final pass rate. “A key factor is the spread of learners across subjects. When this changes, the pass rate can change, even if performance in individual subjects remains the same. In particular, if learners move to easier subjects, more learners pass.”

Good performances skew the average

South African school children sing on Nelson Mandela's birthday in this file photograph. Photo: AFP/Stephane de SakutinThe matric results also conceal the underperformance of the majority of pupils who write the examination. Strong performances in a minority of schools will mask the poor performance of the majority of schools that are judged as dysfunctional.

This skews the average, and does not present a true reflection of the mean for most pupils. This point was also highlighted in Jansen’s criticism of the matric results. “[I]f you removed the top 20% of schools – mainly former white, privileged schools – from the national averages, then a very dark picture emerges of a mainly black and poor school system performing far below what the combined results show,” he wrote.

Conclusion – Matric pass rate doesn’t mean education is on the right track

The improvement in the matric pass rate is good news for those concerned, but it is not a sign that the “system is on the right track”, nor that the quality of the education system is improving. An Africa Check report looking at claims made about the 2012 matric results came to the same conclusions.

The matric results are not a good measure of academic achievement in the education system. As the department has acknowledged, they are not designed for yearly comparison or to be a reflection of academic achievement in the education system. The good performance of a minority of schools can also skew the results, as can pupils electing to take easier subjects.

The results only account for about half of those who entered school together. South Africa’s high dropout and repetition rates mean that many young people will never get the chance to write their matric examinations, let alone pass them.

Additional research by Mandy de Waal. Edited by Julian Rademeyer

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Comment on this report

Comments 10
  1. By Llewellyn Kriel

    While this is shocking, what’s even more distressing is what has happened to the 637,888 children who have been weeded out? Where are they now? What are they doing? How are they surviving? What are their prospects?

    Yes, everyone (at least those of us with a modicum of sanity left in an insane society) agrees that making the grade is more important than pushing sub-standard laggards through as AA/BEE would have SA do, BUT society and principally the State have the responsibility to uplift wherever possible. That is a fundamental human right. Is this Elyseum-style (the movie) segregation (and consequent class stratification) not unconstitutional or, at least, a violation of the Declaration of Human Rights?

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    • By Tracey

      The pass mark has not dropped to 30%. You need a variety of different scores to acquire certain passes. Off the top of my head (and I’ll need to double check), for a Bachelor’s pass you need 4 subjects at 50% or more; a home language (LOLT at a University) at 40% or more and 2 subjects at 30% or more.

      I also need to double check pass requirements pre 1995 but I think you had to pass your subjects at 40% or more for higher grade or else you were automatically downgraded to standard grade.

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      • By Benjamin

        Ah okay, that is much better than I thought. I think it still is a factor though, if the passing criteria have been changed so as to allow one or two subjects to be passed on 30% then it will also increase the pass %. I wonder what percentage of students in the 78.2% got through with some subjects below 40%.

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  2. By David Mubari

    Why are people worried about whether all those learners who are said to have passed will go to tertiary or not? The grades which appear on the senior national certificate reflects the level a learner was able to score.This therefore means that a learner who passes with a 30% in mathematics and physical science only knows elementary knowledge of the subject and for lecturers and head of departments know well that such a learner cannot study enginnering or mechanics as the content will be difficult for the learner hence the learner may be left with another option to try FETs.While those who passed with 60% or 70% will be enrolled by universites.So the point is that the matric certificate is showing the learner what level he or she has achieved and whether the learner is ready for tertiary education or not A certificate simply acknowledges that a person sat for an examination and achieved the following subject grading.It will be unfair that a learner leaves school and does not have anything to show that he or she was at school.Having the matric certificate is not a licence to get into universities. Employers and heads of department know learners who qualify for further education and those who do not.Those who passed with low marks will eventually become general labourers if they fail to get places at tertiary institutions.

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  3. By carl

    What about those learners who was pressurized to take Maths Lit because the principal reminded them everyday they are going to fail. Why isn’t there government institutions to give them a second chance where they can do Pure Maths and Physical Sciences gr 10 – 12 in one year giving them a second chance at a variety of career fields. Then educators at school should focus in grade 9 on proper career guidance explaining learners what subjects is required for different career fields.

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  4. By Ivan Moor

    You use the word “fraud” as a description of what is being fed us.Very apt.

    The elephant stomping around the room is that the victims of this fraud are mainly the supporters of the ruling party, the black and poor.

    White and Indian pupils score pretty well a 100% pass.

    City press calculate only some 22% of candidates pass with 50% or more. That is candidates. This means that only one out of nine school starters will graduate with a reasonable pass.

    One in 65 will pass with a reasonable maths score.

    Deduct white, coloureds and Indians from the one in 65 and the percentage of numerate black kids becomes even more pathetic.

    Yes, fraud is an appropriate word. Monstrous fraud perhaps even better.

    Watching self lauditory panjundrums telling massive porkies is sickening. Watching the victims gleefully drink their Kool Aide is really, really frightening.

    Reply Report comment
  5. By Arie van der Bijl

    Bad education prevents our youth from competing in a world that gets more and more competative. At present levels we will never ever be able to compete with, for instance, Korea, India, China and the likes. Minister Motshega and her consorts are condemning our youth to a featureless future. No job, no money, only crime is left.

    Reply Report comment
  6. By Musa

    The comparison of the grade 11 pass rate to the number of learners who entered the schooling system 12 years earlier is unfair if raised as a stand alone proof of that pass rate of 2013 is nothing to he proud about.

    However it would be a good barometer if or can be shown for all the previous years.

    For a start what is the percentage of repeaters in all grades?

    Of the 1.3m in grade 1 12 years earlier what were % were repeaters?

    What % of those who were repeating grade 12 for the first time passed the second time around.

    What % who repeated any grade passed grade 12 first time.

    I think an answer to these questions would help spur further research as to cause and effect of repeating grades, in addition to telling us where are the drop outs.

    Reply Report comment

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