Matric Results - Just Another Shlenter

2014-01-29 12:54

As South Africans, we are inured to scandal. Because the everyday shenanigans of our ruling party would topple the government of a quality democracy, it's "routine" infractions (drawn to our notice courtesy of a relatively free press) have become mundane. That makes it possible to ignore or rationalise away even what is truly damaging since it is hardly discernible amid the clutter and noise of the everyday. The latest batch of matric results, those as at end 2013, turn the spotlight on just such a scandal - provided you ask the right questions of the system. Like peeling an onion, with each layer of questioning they reveal increasingly dysfunctional forces likely to dwarf the long term harm done by the routine and every day scandals bombarding us. International comparative research shows South African school graduates rated worst in the world in maths competence and way down the scale on sciences, which points to serious future problems for both the economy and societal intellectual capacity. We also know one of the prime reasons, with SADTU widely recognised for its role of putting the interests of lousy teachers ahead of those of promising students.

So, all other things being equal and notwithstanding occasional exceptions, it is unavoidable that things get worse. But instead of instituting national educational reforms, nothing was done until the garden fairies came to the salvation of the 2013 matrics and visited upon them some improbable and misleading results.

When they hit the headlines, the official take was relief and jubilation -

> The highest national matric pass rate had been achieved since 1994!

> Two of the erstwhile worst performing provinces - North West and Free State - achieving miraculous turnarounds, and

> the Western Cape - previously the jewel in the nation's education crown - had stabilised, but was "overtaken" in terms of pass rate by the two new star regions!

Audits called for by the official parliamentary opposition are likely to confirm what most of us already know from common sense;

* the new "star" regions had already weeded out their marginal students prior to reaching matric (many were failed in grade 10), presumably  in order to boost their pass ratio, and

* marking standards vary significantly between provinces, with the most rigorous standards in the Western Cape. The need for standardising national marking has been contested by trade union SADTU for years in order to protect sub optimal and poorly qualified markers with union affiliation.

The bottom line is that a Western Cape matric and a Free State or North West matric are not necessarily comparable - yet even that is only a fraction of the problem. The impetus for dropping out of the education system differs between provinces. The Western Cape strives to minimise drop outs in the interests of the child's development, whilst others can be accused of culling to make the numbers look good and earn political mileage. Cynical?  Sure - but a good bet around election time. Yet these issues remain at the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Window dressing matric results is a symptom of an infinitely larger problem.  James Myburgh  raises a number of issues in his January 23rd article that relate to standards, a probable lack of consistency and even the possibility of results meddling . Here are some of the points he makes -

> our matric exam is difficult to fail. " In order to pass matric a candidate is simply required to achieve a 40% pass in three subjects, one of which must be an official language at home language level, and 30% in three other subjects. He or she can completely fail in a seventh subject and still pass overall."

> "Failing matric... is for the overwhelming majority of candidates, heavily dependent on securing less than 30% in two of the four remaining subjects that they write. One of these has to be mathematics or maths literacy.

As a result, maths literacy provides a major cop out. In Myburgh's words "Maths literacy was implemented as a "better than nothing" subject - as many pupils under the old pre-2008 system were writing no maths at all."

Today's matric maths standard is somewhere between the erstwhile higher and standard  grades, which is hardly challenging by international standards but is then also cannibalised by those taking the still easier maths literacy option;

Proportions of candidates for NSC writing maths versus maths literacy

YearMaths%Maths literacy%Total
2009290 40751.1%277 67748.9%568 084
2010263 03448.4%280 83651.6%543 870
2011224 63544.9%275 38055.1%500 015
2012225 87443.7%291 34156.3%517 215
2013241 50942.7%324 09757.3%565 606
Thus the pursuit of examination pass rates trumps the creation of better educated people, with Myburgh concerned at the tendency to encourage more capable students than necessary to take maths literacy. Taking maths literacy in preference to straight maths narrows both university entrance and career options later in life. Even then, the standard of the maths passes is poor, with the bulk of the improvement in number of passes coming once again from Free State and North West. The bottom line is that 59% of candidates "passed" with more than 30% and only 11,2% of all candidates who wrote the 2013 NSC examination passed mathematics with more than 50%.

Changes in pass rates for physical science more or less mirrored the trend in maths with North West showing an implausible 11,9% improvement over 2012.

So now - Who is kidding Who?

How can we buy into the notion that the youth is better educated when -

> pass rates are marked according to different standards throughout the country?

> contrived interim standards are put in place to weed out struggling kids hoping to write matric?

> youths are being nudged into doing subjects that reflect better on the region's teaching profession but effectively curtail opportunities for further study and better careers?

As in business and the economy at large the emphasis is on the way things look (racial quotas/ affirmative action targets/ BEE goals/ and now - exam pass stats!) rather than how they work.

At a more profound level, our appalling maths and science standards need to be improved and economic literacy introduced into the national curriculum - both with a sense of urgency.

Given that the youth is by definition our passport to a better society and an improved life for all South Africans, the unfortunate emphases on the trappings - quantity rather than quality; ratios and percentages rather than creating opportunities; and on political machinations rather than helping people to benefit from good education - amount to a scandal. Left unaddressed, it will carry the ultimate cost - a permanently unequal society bereft of prospects for individuals and lacking opportunities for personal improvement.

The nation's youth is it's most valuable tangible asset and the continued mismanagement of its education should be unthinkable.

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