Maths Fail!

2011-02-26 00:00

DOCUMENTS released this week reveal for the first time that matriculants on average scored barely more than 20% in the national maths exam over the last three years.

The parlous state of education and shocking average marks in key subjects is exposed by the documents that were released by matric exam quality control watchdog Umalusi amid mounting pressure.

Pressure included a Promotion of Access to Information request lodged by Media24 Investigations for Umalusi to disclose details of how matric exam results were adjusted and “standardised”.

Applied every year since 1918, the standardisation process has until now been veiled in secrecy.

Pass rates in subjects that have been known by the average mark in each subject have not been publicised.

The unprecedented release of Umalusi’s standardisation decisions also comes in response to accusations that the 2010 pass rate of 67,8% — unexpectedly up 7,1 percentage points on the previous year — had been artificially inflated, a claim Umalusi and the Department of Basic Education have consistently denied.

But the documents released by Umalusi revealed far more than the standardisation process.

The disclosures contained in a document detailing adjustment justifications for National Senior Certificate (NSC) papers are shocking and reveal that:

•Maths marks remained “consistently poor” and the bulk of the approximately 296 000 pupils who wrote last year’s matric paper failed dismally, with an average raw mark for the paper of only 23,66%. This was later adjusted upwards to 28,6%.

In 2008, the average raw mark was 22,69% (adjusted upwards to 28,26%) and in 2009 marks were adjusted upwards from 20,79% to 27,3%.

According to Umalusi, analysis showed that maths question papers were “significantly more difficult than the other subjects”.

•Accountancy also proved problematic with last year’s paper being described as “cognitively more challenging than previous years” and pupils achieving a shocking 27,92% average mark, later adjusted to 33%.

•Life sciences saw average raw marks of 41,60%, up from 35,15% in 2008 and 34,84% in 2009.

•Business studies saw average raw marks of 36,48% in 2010, 36,97% in in 2009 and 36,22% in 2008.

•Average raw marks for English home language were 53,98% in 2010 with the failure rate being attributed by Umalusi to the fact that many candidates took English as a “home language although it’s not their mother tongue, but for the core purpose of accessing higher education”.

Education specialist Graeme Bloch, author of The Toxic Mix: What is Wrong with SA Schools and How to Fix It, said this week the raw averages are a reflection of the country’s “creaking education system”.

“Foundations of literacy and numeracy are not even in place. There are huge inequalities hidden under the average figures,” he said.

“There is a range of reasons, from teacher content knowledge, a history of cheap and dirty education, lousy facilities like libraries or labs, poor administration and supervision.”

Bloch said the key question is not the integrity of Umalusi or the standardisation of results, but rather the poor education system and the meaning of matric as a benchmark.

“Above all, we lack a clear, coherent plan and the effective commitment to implement it, from political leaders to teachers, learners and parents.”

Recent studies conducted by Wits and the Centre for Development and Enterprise reflect grave concerns over the state of maths and science education in South Africa.

Volker Schöer, a lecturer at the Wits School of Economics and Business Sciences and one of the researchers in a recent study that looked at NSC maths scores, said this week that school-leaving scores for mathematics are “inflated, especially at the lower performance levels” and said “adjusting raw scores upwards … exacerbates the problem”.

The study said, “While more pupils obtained university exemption and performed better in mathematics (since the implementation of the NSC in 2008) … universities have observed increasing failure rates in first-year courses of students … that are admitted on NSC examination scores.”

A paper published by the Centre for Development and Enterprise in September last year and based on an evaluation of 2008 NSC results found that South Africa “relies on just more than 400 schools for half its mathematics passes at the 50% level, and about 350 schools for half its science passes at the 50% level”.

The paper found that “2008 NSC results reflect a significant degree of grade inflation” and warned that “if this trend continues, universities and employers will begin discounting it, and examinations other than the NSC will gain in credibility”.

n No general adjustment should exceed 10% for a 300-mark paper.

n In the case of the individual candidate, the adjustment should not exceed 50% of the raw mark obtained by the candidate.

n If the distribution of the raw marks is below the historical average, the marks may be adjusted upwards.

n If the distribution of the raw marks is above the historical average, the marks may be adjusted downwards.

n In cases of subjects that have a small enrolment, the raw marks would be generally accepted.

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