Africa Check (Johannesburg)

South Africa: Why the Matric Pass Rate Is Not a Reliable Benchmark of Education Quality

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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

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 long before they reach their final year. The dropout rate is not taken into account in the final pass rate.

For example, when the 2012 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, their numbers had fallen to 562,112.

Nicholas Spaull, a researcher at Stellenbosch University who focuses on primary education, says that "students are pushed through the system until grade 10, and then schools realise that if they put these kids through, they are not going to pass grade 12".

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