Opinionista Mduduzi Mbiza 2 April 2018

Angie Motshekga’s pass rate paradox

One of the things that remain a challenge in global education is the thin line between measuring pass rates and the quality rate.

In a World Bank study in Limpopo, 400 12-year-old school pupils were asked to work out the answer to 7 x 17. The pupils first drew 17 sticks, then counted them seven times – 130 of the 400 got the right answer.

The same question was presented in word form in English.

Researchers asked the students: “If there are seven rows of 17 chairs, how many chairs are there?”

None of the children answered correctly.

The manner in which the first question was asked shows that 32.5% of learners knew the answer to 7 x 17, but the second question proves that none of them understood the concept of multiplication.

In February 2018, a gazette was published by the department of Education proposing a decrease in the percentage required to pass the home language subject – from 50% to 40%. This drop is proposed for Grades 7, 8 & 9.

Some people may not understand what this proposal really means. It means that the amount of time and effort learners need to put towards passing their home language has been decreased by 10%.

In an interview with the SABC, the spokesperson of the department of education, Elijah Mhlanga, said:

Thirty percent or 40% is not an achievement. You are not required to achieve 30% or 40 %, that’s a minimum, you’re supposed to achieve at the highest. We urge all our learners to work towards achieving the maximum marks and not work towards achieving the minimum.”

He also said that this proposal is meant to cater for everyone, “the stronger learners and the weaker ones”.

It’s no lie that one of the reasons learners drop out is academic underperformance. However, it’s also no lie that lowering marks solves no problem, it actually sidelines it or it hides it.

In the interview, Elijah asked: if 30% or 40% is not an achievement, what is it then? He said it’s a minimum. A minimum to what exactly? Isn’t it a minimum to pass the subject?

We obviously can’t run away from reality. It’s real, we do have learners who are struggling academically. With that being said, isn’t the department supposed to work towards improving these learners? We can’t improve learners simply by lowering the percentage of effort they are supposed to put in. How are we catering for them if we keep making them dumber?

To me, this whole proposal is a paradox, because the department wants to improve the quality of education by decreasing the quality of education. This is like saying less is more. How is it less when it’s more? How is education improved by lowering standards? And what’s amazing is that one of the department’s strategic outcome-oriented goals is to improve the quality of basic education.

Why does the department have scores if it doesn’t matter who achieves what? Is it because universities want these scores? After, all university admission depends on these results being presented.

No matter how hard you try to motivate learners to aim for 100%, as long as you’ve told them it would also be okay if they obtain 40%, human instincts will automatically kick in. Some will aim for the mark that would be reached with less effort. When you want people to be great, to be at the top, you don’t leave room for a level or standard that is less great.

The department has now made it seem impossible to solve this paradox. DM

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