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Matric should not be the only metric by which we measure success — we must bring back regular assessments

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Jonathan Molver is the founding Director of Proteus, which works with government, the private sector and civil society to build stronger, equitable education systems. He was previously the South Africa Country Director of the nonprofit Education Partnerships Group. He began his career as a teacher in Emalahleni and was later principal of King Solomon Academy in London, one of the UK’s highest-performing schools.

By the time we get the matric results, it’s too late for us to do anything. It is highly probable that this year, nearly three-quarters of a million young adults will be joining the 7.5 million 15 to 24-year-olds who are already unemployed.

The wait for learners, teachers, parents and anyone with a vested interest in our education system is over: Matric results are out, and the 81% pass rate is the best we’ve ever achieved, in spite of the pandemic and its impact on this cohort.

But is this improved pass rate really an indicator of social and economic progress?

Our Constitution stipulates that everyone in South Africa has the right to access education. Building on this, the South African Schools Act of 1996 outlined the purpose of education and training, envisioning a “new national system for schools which will redress past injustices in educational provision, provide an education of progressively high quality for all learners, lay a strong foundation for the development of all our people’s talents and capabilities… contribute to the eradication of poverty and the economic well-being of society”.

If these are the aims of the South African education system, then the matric pass rate as a measure of social and economic progress is insufficient, because it doesn’t account for all learners. There are several reports on dropout rates, with the government’s own statistics highlighting this year that 481,955 — almost half — of the one million learners who were in Grade 10 three years ago did not manage to secure a National Senior Certificate (NSC).

Young people aren’t leaving education because of immediate employment or alternative education opportunities. Last year, 75.1% of the 10 million 15 to 24-year-olds were unemployed; 37% of them were not in employment, education, or training. Half of these unemployed individuals did not finish or pass matric. The dropout rate remains devastatingly high, even as we celebrate our highest-ever pass rate.

But getting a matric doesn’t necessarily get you a job, either. Of the 7.9 million people who were unemployed in the first quarter of 2022, a staggering 40% had a matric certificate. Your chances of employment improve exponentially with a bachelor’s pass, which opens the door to tertiary education — last year less than 3% of unemployed persons were graduates. This year, 38.4% of our learners achieved a Bachelor pass — our highest total yet. 

We should challenge the assumption that matric is a valid and reliable measure for social and economic progress. But of equal if not greater concern, is the issue of matric currently being the only externally validated, standardised measure of performance we have in our system.

This is concerning because by the time we get the matric results, it’s too late for us to do anything. It is highly probable that this year, nearly three-quarters of a million young adults will be joining the 7.5 million 15 to 24-year-olds who are already unemployed.

If we’re going to fundamentally change the trajectory of our children’s futures, and our country’s prospects, we must think differently about how we measure outcomes.

In a chronicle by William Rosen “The Most Powerful Idea in the World”, Rosen uses the process of inventing the steam engine to illustrate that we achieve amazing progress by setting clear goals and selecting the right measures, which in turn allow us to collect accurate data, conduct insightful analysis, and take action which delivers results.

We have seen this work in education. Millennium Development Goal (MDG) 2 set out to “Ensure that children universally — including both boys and girls — will be able to complete a full course of primary education by 2015”. This saw an increase in primary school net enrolment from 83% in 2000 to 91% in 2015, and ensured that the number of out-of-school children was nearly halved — from 100 million in 2000 to 57 million in 2015.


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What we learned from the MDGs is that a strong measurement framework can drive monitoring and accountability. This learning was incorporated into the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which critically have clear targets and indicators that aim to eliminate poverty entirelybringing increased accountability and driving deep analysis and action that addresses the interrelated root causes of poverty.

The good news is that our education system already has goals. In 2013, we published the National Development Plan (NDP), and in 2015, we signed up to the SDGs. These are incorporated into the National Minister’s performance plan. They’re included in most provincial performance plans as well, although the format varies from one province to another and the data is difficult to find.

To make these goals meaningful, we should ensure they’re consistently incorporated in provincial performance plans, and then at district, circuit and school levels. Progress should be tracked and published on a centralised dashboard — that doesn’t just report on matric pass rates, but reports on progress against the key targets.

In addition to greater consistency and transparency, we urgently need a set of agreed key indicators and measurement tools to measure progress at various points throughout the system. Our government has tried to do this. In 2011, the Department of Basic Education (DBE) set out to have all schools write the Annual National Assessments (ANAs) to measure numeracy and literacy proficiency every year, in every grade.

The purpose was to monitor progress towards the goal of 60% achieving proficiency in languages and maths, to use the data to identify the learning challenges faced by children, and to develop interventions that could improve their outcomes (measurement, analysis, action and results).  

In 2015, the ANAs were abandoned, because teacher unions felt that they were too time-consuming, too frequent, used to measure teacher performance instead of learner performance and “thereby hampered the smooth running of teaching and learning”. 

According to the DBE mediations were held, and a revised proposal was put forward which allowed schools to administer and mark tests at a time suitable for them. The proposal allowed for schools to retain the data for internal use only — mitigating fears of this data being used to monitor teacher performance and strengthening the case for this data being used formatively.

The DBE and the unions failed to reach agreement on the terms of the revised proposal, and so the DBE communicated its intent to proceed anyway. Sadly, distribution and collection varied significantly across provinces and in general uptake was low. This turned out to be the last year that these papers were written.

Sadtu hold some valid points in their criticism of the ANAs — but the fact that they were abandoned altogether is symptomatic of the undue influence the union holds over the education system. As I have outlined before — we need to value our teachers, but we cannot continue to prioritise their preferences to the detriment of our children’s futures.

If we’re going to monitor progress and do something about it before it’s too late, we have to introduce regular, standardised assessments. Teachers and unions will need convincing.

Yes, regular assessments will increase transparency which should drive accountability, but these tools are primarily about driving progress, and equipping and empowering teachers. If utilised well, external assessments have the potential to both reduce workload and improve efficacy by providing valid and reliable data to inform teaching and learning.

Streamlining and professionalising distribution, adjudication, exam conditions, data collection and analysis is paramount — the assessments should be a blessing, not a burden to our teachers, who already work hard enough.

Finally, valid and reliable external measures also offer an opportunity to incentivise and reward performance fairly, by measuring progress, or relative performance.

Given the important role of education as a determinant of a child’s future, including earnings, life expectancy and life satisfaction — our education system needs goals which focus efforts and resources in the system, which hold all relevant stakeholders accountable, and which have key indicators for success. These goals and indicators must be measurable, so that we can collect accurate data, conduct insightful analysis, take informed action, and ultimately deliver excellent outcomes.

Just imagine how different South Africa would look if by 2030 we could double the number of learners who finish school, and they all had a qualification that could get them a job. DM

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  • Alison Immelman Immelman says:

    The Kids are assessed to death as it is. I am an English teacher and I mark 22 assessments already. My Excel marksheet goes up to column AW.
    The danger of any assessment is that teachers teach to the assessment – spend much time having the children practise to pass – leaving the kids knowing and understanding very little. And taking away valuable teaching time.
    We have been promised a functional vocational education band for the longest time. We need plumbers, mechanics and electricians as much as white collar workers.
    There is this absurd fixation on a university education – no wonder we have unemployed graduates.
    The notion that teachers must work harder is an insult. You only have to look at a teacher not even half-way through the year to see a shattered individual who has already given life, blood and soul to the children in her care to realise this is an unrealistic expectation.
    We are already at school for more days than any other country in the world!

    Of course an external assessment tests the teachers!
    Let’s rather focus on a culture of learning and thinking and future-proofing our young people.

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