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25 July 2016 19:43 (South Africa)
South Africa

Analysis: Do we read too much into Matric results?

  • Rebecca Davis
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    Rebecca Davis

    Rebecca Davis studied at Rhodes University and Oxford before working in lexicography at the Oxford English Dictionary. After deciding she’d rather make up words than define them, she returned to South Africa in 2011 to write for the Daily Maverick, which has been a magnificilious decision.  

  • South Africa
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The annual publication of South Africa’s Matric results always turns the spotlight on the state of national education – for a few days at least. But it’s been suggested in the past that if we really want to know how our education system is doing, the Matric pass rate may not be the most reliable indicator at all. REBECCA DAVIS asked a number of education experts whether we place too much weight on Matric results as a guide to our educational status quo.

“We make a mistake by reading the state of education off the [Matric] pass rate,” says UCT deputy vice-chancellor Professor Crain Soudien.

“As it works at the moment, it says very little about how well or poorly the system is doing. And that is largely because it doesn’t tell you anything about the majority of young people in this age-group who have dropped out already, or, actually what the real levels of literacy and understanding are in Maths, languages and the other subjects that are taken of those who do write [Matric]. So we must approach it with caution.”

This caution is precisely what statisticians and educational experts have urged for some years. In 2014, University of the Free State rector Jonathan Jansen lashed out against the government “wrongly, but conveniently” using Matric results “as a barometer of the state of the school system”. And in fact, despite the hoo-ha made by the government every year about the Matric results, even the Department of Basic Education sounds the same muted note on its own website.

“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,” the department states.

But that’s not to say that the Matric results don’t tell us anything. When you look at the actual number of pupils failing Matric, says Professor Elizabeth Henning – who is based at the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Education Practice Research – the results can indeed be revealing.

“The results tell us that we fail half a million people in each cohort,” Henning told the Daily Maverick. “That does say a lot about the education system. It says that there are provinces and districts where the administration, management and leadership are not good enough for the 21st century.”

The DA’s Shadow Education Minister Annette Lovemore agrees that the reporting of the Matric results possibly most accurately reflects some negative aspects of the South African education system.

“One of these is the inequality that is prevalent,” Lovemore says. She points to the practice of identifying the ‘best quintile 1 Matrics’ (ie, the top-performing Matrics from the poorest schools), and the ‘best quintile 5 Matrics’ (the top-performing Matrics from the richest schools).

“This should not be necessary,” Lovemore says. “The practice, though, does highlight the fact that we still have a very unequal education system, with the possibility of receiving a quality education still very much dictated by the socio-economic circumstances of a child’s birth.”

Lovemore believes that the Matric results are less a barometer of the health of the education system than “a barometer of the success of spring or winter camps, of extra lessons before and after school, and of hours of teaching to previous exam papers.”

If the current reporting on Matric results doesn’t tell us enough, though, what kind of reporting would?

“We should be looking at the quality of the passes, the numbers [of pupils] taking more challenging subjects, and the number of bachelor passes,” University of Stellenbosch education researcher Nic Spaull told the Daily Maverick.

“In some countries, like Kenya, there is no pass mark at all. They just report what mark you get in each subject and then that's used for universities or the world of work. This reduces the incentive to manipulate the pass rate by excluding students, for example.”

Lovemore also cites the example of Botswana, where the emphasis in results reporting is placed on excellence rather than simply the percentage who pass: “[In Botswana] schools are compared according to the percentage of their passes that are achieved at a [greater than] 60% level,” she says.

Spaull suggests that when it comes to assessing the state of the wider education system, there are better indicators earlier on: the Southern Africa Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality (SACMEQ) test in Grade 6, for instance, and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) test in Grade 9.

“Both of these are comparable over time and test the mathematics, language and science competencies of a nationally representative sample every four to six years,” Spaull says.

Spaull acknowledges, though, that the “obsession” with the Matric pass rate is understandable: it’s easy to get your head around for non-statisticians, and it’s what politicians and the media focus on as “the measure of the education system”, even though it’s only one statistic among many.

Given these issues, should we stop making such a gedoente over the release of Matric results annually (unless you’re an affected pupil, obviously)?

Absolutely not, believes Professor Henning. “Socially, culturally, it is great that we have this ritual,” she says.

“These results are one of the few things that bring us together for a day or two with some happiness and loss of cynicism…Who doesn't get joyful when you see these young people's faces? And whose heart doesn't break for the ones whose dreams did not match the real world of employers and post-school education? And what about the parents and families of achievers - can you be more proud for them?”

Professor Soudien makes a similar point. It is not the fanfare over Matric results reporting that needs to change, he says: it’s the significance of what the Matric certificate actually means.

“It is, for most families, a major milestone in their own sense of personal progress. If it is to be a signal to them of what might be possible in their children’s lives and futures, we would want it to carry the weight people imagine it to have,” Soudien says.

“The Matric examination is such an important part of the South African cultural landscape that we have to be constantly looking at ways of making it more credible, more trustworthy and especially more informative.” DM

Photo: Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga announces the matric results in Johannesburg on Monday, 5 January 2015. The pass rate for the matric class of 2014 is 75.8%, a drop from 78.2% in 2013. Picture: Department of Communications/ (DoC)/SAPA

Read more:

  • Why the matric pass rate is not a reliable benchmark of education quality, on Africa Check
  • Rebecca Davis
    bec photo
    Rebecca Davis

    Rebecca Davis studied at Rhodes University and Oxford before working in lexicography at the Oxford English Dictionary. After deciding she’d rather make up words than define them, she returned to South Africa in 2011 to write for the Daily Maverick, which has been a magnificilious decision.  

  • South Africa

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