Set the matric bar higher

A pass for matric mathematics or physical science is 30%. On a 10-point scale, this means that scholars must get three out of 10 questions right.

In my day a pass took five out of 10 and even then, no one would be proud of such a mark – and rightly so!

A 30%-pass is a low standard by any measure. It means that the work has simply not been mastered.

Universities accept a 40% pass and, because it is still too low a mark by far, the better ones offering science and health degrees cherry-pick those with much higher passes.

Think about it as follows: would you go to a doctor who gets his or her diagnosis right three times out of 10? Or fly on a plane where the pilot gets three out of 10 landings right? Or cross a bridge where the chances of it staying up are 30%? Surely, no sensible person would.

I use life-and-death examples to make the following point: no one would trust someone to do something with competence if the risk of success was a mere 30%.

It applies as much to technology as it does to municipal service delivery. Trust in government depends on having competent people there.

Why does the Department of Basic Education keep to such a low standard set in earlier years? Should it be increased and to what standard? What will the effect be on the matric pass rate? Will the public be able to understand the necessity of initially having a lower pass rate in order to improve quality in time?

Last year’s mathematics and physical science matric results offer some clue as to the gravity of our problems. Less than half the learners passed mathematics and physical science at 30% last year. More than half the learners who sat for the examinations failed mathematics and science because they could not even get the lowly 30%.

The pattern worsens if 40% is used as a cut-off point. In the case of mathematics, 47% passed when 30% is the barrier and 30% passed when it is 40%.

Though the national figures are not readily available, I would not be surprised if there is a catastrophic drop as we raise the bar for a quality pass.

There are further concerns. We have learnt that the 2009 physical science examination paper was easier than the 2008 one. Some very clever matric students at a Cape Town high school told me that the mathematics paper was a breeze and that the physics paper did not really stretch their brains.

Judging by how many more scholars found themselves in the 30% to 40% pass bracket raises questions about examiner generosity and perhaps the scale of pushing weak scholars into the pass zone.

The consequence of the trend is that universities struggle to fill the halls of science and health with enough students who are able to master their fields of expertise. This compromises our ability to develop economically and run competent administrations.

What is to be done? An accelerated programme of training pre- and in-service for mathematics and science teachers is probably the most important intervention.

Set the bar higher by defining 40% as a pass. Prepare the nation for an initial drop in pass rates. Then keep at it for 10 years and real quality will emerge – and on scale.

- Wilmot James is a DA MP and the Shadow Minister of Education.

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