Let’s not focus only on the matric results

| Wim Louw
A focus on matric results obscures worrying drop-out rates between Grade 10 and Grade 12. Photo by Masixole Feni.

A focus on the matric results obscures problems lower down in the education system, writes Wim Louw.

The National Senior Certificate (NSC) results are not a good indication of the performance of the education system as a whole.

Indeed, a focus on these results obscures a number of problems which hide lower down in the system – particularly in terms of basic numeracy and literacy skills, and the worrying drop-out rates between Grade 10 and 12.

The matric results must be viewed in context, as one component of the schooling system, and one statistic in the diagnostic tool-box of the Department of Basic Education (DBE).

The NSC pass rate indicates the percentage of students who passed a particular year’s exams – very little else. The pass rate is affected by various factors, including the number of exam takers in a particular year, and the subject choices students make in a particular year. A rising pass rate may obscure, for instance, the fact that students are increasingly moving away from more difficult subjects to easier subjects – which is undesirable.

The pass rate is also influenced by the design and assessment of the exam papers – which is not unproblematic for South Africa, and not consistent.

Comparing the matric pass rate across years is, therefore, problematic (and potentially misleading) if one wants to venture beyond pure description.

Taking groups of learners who started school together in Grade 2 and tracking them over a 10 year span reveals massive and consistent drop-out rates.

Approximately half of each cohort drops out before even reaching matric (about half a million students), mostly between Grade 10 and 12.

Looking at matric pass rates, it is worth noting that in 2013, 562,112 learners wrote matric and 439,779 (78.2%) passed matric; but 10 years earlier (2003) there were 1,111,858 learners registered in Grade 2.

Taking drop-outs into account we see a pass rate closer to 40%.

In 2014, 532,860 learners wrote matric and 403,874 (75.8%) passed matric; but 10 years earlier (2004) there were 1,109,201 learners registered in Grade 2.

Taking drop-outs into account we see a pass rate closer to 36%.

This year’s 75.8% pass rate was slightly lower than last year’s (quite controversial) 78.2%.

Factors that make the 2014 exams different include the phasing in of the Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement’s new curriculum – which means content has changed slightly from previous years; changes to the format, structure and depth of content in key subject like mathematics and science; and greater attention to the marking process (which was a big problem last year).

But regardless of the drop in the percentage of successful NSC candidates this year, it is encouraging to see a clear attempt to improve the standard of the National Senior Certificate and the standard and depth of examination papers, which has been a major issue.

The DBE’s website states that the NSC should be seen as a measurement of “the opportunities open to our youths”. The DBE tries to do this by tracking the number of Grade 12 learners who become eligible for higher education, and also the number of Grade 12 learners who pass mathematics and physical sciences. By looking at these factors one can see whether ‘opportunity’ is increasing or decreasing and assess the success of the NSC in this way.

What this hides, of course – that must also be taken into account – is whether learners leave the system with the skills required to take advantage of higher education opportunities.

Looking at enrolment numbers in mathematics and science from 2010 to 2014 we see that the enrolment number for mathematics is very low (at 42% in 2014), and the enrolment number in physical science is clearly dropping (currently it is at 31%) - an issue the DBE has flagged in its Technical Report.

In the past there has been an upward trend in the pass rate for mathematics and physical science. However, the number of students writing these subjects has decreased.

In 2014, with format, structure and depth-of-content amendments to the mathematics and physical science papers, we see a bit of a dip in the pass rate. The pass rate in mathematics fell from approximately 59% in 2013 to 54% in 2014, and in physical science from 67% in 2013 to 61% in 2014.

In 2013, 171,755 out of the 562,112 learners who wrote matric (30.6%) met the ‘minimum requirements’ (as defined by Higher Education South Africa) to study for a Bachelor degree and 173,292 (30.8%) met the minimum requirements to study for a Diploma. In 2014, 150,752 of the 532,860 learners who wrote matric qualified for Bachelor studies (28.3%) and 166,689 (31.3%) qualified to study for a diploma.

So focusing exclusively on the pass rate can be misleading. The fact that approximately 50% of learners exit the system between Grades 10 and 12 each year, leaving school without any formal education, has been a consistent and worrying trend. This raises a number of questions about the effectiveness of the schooling system, but also about perceptions about the value of the NSC, for instance.

Students are also increasingly moving away from mathematics and physical science and scores in these subjects are generally very low.

Furthermore, an over-emphasis on matric performance may also create perverse incentives – the serious reports of mass-copying this year (mostly in the poorest and most under-resourced schools) may be symptomatic of this.

Wim Louw is a researcher at Equal Education. This article is a shortened and consolidated version of two Equal Education reports: ‘On the upcoming matric results’ and ‘On the 2014 Matric results’.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. No inference should be made about whether these reflect the editorial position of GroundUp.

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