Dropping standards?

2012-01-06 00:00

ABOUT two years ago, a group of academics were comparing their own matric marks. The biochemistry professor boasted that she got two distinctions, and the maths professor confessed that he got no distinctions, but was proud of his B in English. We all decided that compared to our current students, we were real thickies, since we teach many students who achieved six or more distinctions in matric. Or could it be that the standard of the matric examinations really has changed?

To begin to answer this question, I collected data from a school that has a long history of good performance in matric examinations. I wanted to know what changes have taken place in the performance of candidates in a context where teaching and school management have always been excellent. It is a public school with a mixed pupil population.

I looked at the matric results for the years 1981, 1991, 2001, and 2010, a period spanning many changes in the conduct of matric exams. I counted the number of distinctions in all subjects, higher grade and standard grade, except life orientation and languages offered as second additional language. Here is a summary of my findings.

• The matric enrolment in the school was 150 in 1981, 175 in 1991, 201 in 2001 and 222 in 2010.

• The percentage of candidates who met the requirements for university entrance rose steadily from 70% in 1981 to 97% in 2010.

• One candidate obtained six distinctions in 1981 and in 1991, four candidates obtained six or seven distinctions in 2001, and 18 candidates obtained six or more distinctions in 2010.

• The proportion of candidates scoring no distinctions has decreased from 87% in 1981 to 28% in 2010.

Looking at individual key subjects, this is what I found.

• Just over five percent of each year’s cohort obtained a distinction in English home language from 1981 to 2001, but this quadrupled to about 20% in 2010.

• About six to seven percent of each year’s cohort obtained a distinction in mathematics from 1981 to 2001, trebling to about 20% in 2010.

• Five percent to 10% of each year’s cohort earned a distinction in biology between 1981 and 2001, rising to 16% in 2010.

• Physical science has historically attracted a relatively small enrolment. Less than five percent of each year’s cohort obtained a distinction in physical science bet­ween 1981 and 2001, almost trebling to 13% in 2010.

The evidence is quite conclusive: it has become considerably easier for candidates in this school to score high marks in matric. More distinctions are being awarded now than in the days of standard grade. In the 2010 examinations, the average mark for this school was over 70% for English, life sciences and physical sciences, while mathematics was 68%. It concerns me that the candidates in this school are not being sufficiently extended by our current curriculum and examinations.

And yet, the figures for South Africa as a whole show that the average mark in 2010 for English home language was 54%, mathematics was 29%, life sciences was 38% and physical sciences was 30%. Unlike my reference school, the typical South African pupil experienced key 2010 exams as difficult.

The inequality in our education system is precisely the problem in setting standards in South Africa. All national and international surveys show that we have a small, but well-functioning top end, and a long, weighty tail that is still struggling to achieve respectable marks. The matric pass rate has improved by an unbelievable 10% in the past two years. Umalusi rigorously analyses curriculum and examinations each year, and assures the public that standards have been maintained. We would like to believe that the improved pass rate is due to improved teaching and learning, not to easier examinations.

“Difficulty” of an exam paper is a function of the ability of pupils and the requirements of the assessment task. Analysing pupils’ scores on the examination is the only way to measure difficulty accurately. If pupils’ scores are low, the exam was too difficult; if they are high, the exam was too easy. Applying these criteria to the 2010 results, exams were too easy in my reference school, but key subjects like maths, life sciences and physical sciences were too difficult when the whole of South Africa is considered.

We as a country decide what acceptable standards for our country’s matric exams are. It would be wonderful if we could claim that improved pass rates over the past two years are indisputably due to vastly improved learning and teaching. My study of just one school points to something else: the assessment has become significantly easier in recent years. The sadness is that inequality of teaching and learning opportunities across our schools make it very difficult to provide a single assessment instrument that is fair and challenging to all.

• Edith R. Dempster is a senior lecturer at the School of Education, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg.

Matric has become significantly easier in recent years

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