We’ve failed to uphold matric standard

2011-06-18 12:07

The matric pass result rose dramatically this year after years of continuous decline.

But ironically, no one is really happy about this.

The reason is because no one knows why it went up so sharply.

Education experts cannot explain why the pass rate, which was expected to drop further due to the long World Cup holidays and the protracted teacher strikes, suddenly went up. It just did.

Yet very few would say this reveals some great improvement in the quality of our education system. Far from it.

In fact, the matric exam has lost its credibility as an arbiter of academic excellence and as a standard by which we judge our education system.

It is not a trustworthy indicator of educational quality in our schools.

The matric “brand” has lost its value. This needs to change.

Of course, in many ways it is quite silly to put so much emphasis on the matric pass rate when our education system is so complex. It’s absurd to judge the whole by this single event at the end of a learner’s 12 years of schooling.

There are so many early phase elements, such as literacy and numeracy development that give us crucial information about the quality of the system.

But as the culminating event of this process which decides whether students have passed or failed in their academic enterprise – and which dictates their future possibilities – matric results remain a crucial indicator of the system’s health.

Their yearly revelation by the minister of basic education also offers the public an opportunity to engage in rigorous debate about our academic outcomes.

This is not ideal, that we focus so heavily on one aspect of education at the expense of the many others, but it is the nature of the education system we have.

For better or worse, the end of year pass/fail ritual structures the way we deal with education issues.

Because of this limitation – our collective obsession with the pass rate – the matric standard must be of the highest possible quality. It must be adjudicated with integrity, marked with consistency and communicated with clarity.

It must be a standard that universities trust to help them gauge the performance of potential students.

And it must accurately reflect learners’ abilities to employers who use matriculation as the standard by which they hire employees. In a word, it must be credible.

The fact that no one, including Minister Angie Motshekga, is really happy about the “improved” pass rate suggests matric isn’t as credible as it should be.

This credibility gap exists for three reasons.

First, the standards for passing matric are so low as to be a joke to most universities and employers.

If students can pass subjects just by obtaining three correct answers out of 10 (a 30% “pass”), then that matric pass is surely of little value. In these cases, the “pass” signifies that the student does not know much about the topic.

The fact that universities have felt compelled to develop their own means of assessing students’ abilities independent of matric scores shows the extent to which the matric standard has slipped over the years.

Thus the standard should be raised back to its former level of 50% for a pass.

This is necessary to instil confidence in the results and to drive innovations at the earlier phases of the schooling system that are crucial for getting the majority of students to the 50% level.

Second, there are multiple ways in which the pass rate can be manipulated, even though the agents involved might be acting legally, alone or, in their own minds, in the best interests of the children.

For instance, more than 30% of 11th graders at government schools do not go on to Grade 12.

This is a massive drop-out rate.

And the fact that it happens right as students are about to enter matric suggests that perhaps some educators are encouraging weaker students to not bother completing school.

The department of education calls this practice “culling”.

Schools are under pressure from provincial education authorities to improve their pass marks. The authorities themselves face similar pressure from the national department of basic education, their political bosses and a restive populace.

This pressure can end up encouraging teachers and schools to enhance their pass rates by culling weaker students between grades 11 and 12.

This sort of subtle, yet pervasive, manipulation of the system to improve the pass rate leads to further disenchantment with matric as a standard.

Only by depoliticising the pass rate by focusing on quality rather than percentages can we relieve the system of these incentives to manipulate it.

Lastly, while the pass rate is simple enough to comprehend as a percentage number, the adjustments process which is meant to produce consistency across exams remains a mystery for most.

Umalusi, the independent body which is tasked with assuring exam quality and consistency, has had a hard time explaining how it operates and why certain subjects are adjusted up and down.

Until this year, it hid behind technical arguments for refusing to explain its decisions, but the recent upswing in the pass rate created such consternation and doubt that it had to try to explain itself.

Yet the public remains confused as to why tests are “adjusted” in the first place, and how. Matric’s credibility drops as its outcomes get more complicated to explain.

» James is a DA MP and shadow minister of basic education.

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