Is matric pass mark worth celebrating?

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IOL SI Tinyiko MalulekeETCH

Independent Newspapers.

Tinyiko Maluleke.

In a packed hall somewhere tomorrow, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga will confidently take the podium. She will raise her voice steadily to show the annual improvements as she announces: “When this administration took office in 2009, the matric pass rate was 60.6 percent, in 2010 it was 67.8 percent, in 2011 it was 70.2 percent, in 2012 it was 73.9 percent, and in 2013 the pass rate has risen to an amazing 76.5 percent” (remember the target the minister has set for herself is 75 percent).

The minister will then pause in anticipation of applause, which should last a few minutes.

And yet, after the applause has died down; after the triumphant follow-up interviews and advertorials; after the usual suspects have finished scolding the government of the day in opinion pieces and talk shows (yours truly included), one question will remain. It is a question we all feel in our guts, but one we are often embarrassed to pose, let alone attempt to answer. Can the matric certificate still be trusted?

On December 30, Professor Sizwe Mabizela, chairman of the quality-assurance body Umalusi Council, was buoyant. He took great care to outline the stringent processes and protocols in the “above-average” Umalusi quality-assurance regime, including its examination results standardisation processes.

We must not be fooled by the razzmatazz offensive that has been unleashed since then, to be raised to a crescendo tomorrow.

Some sections of the media are in on the jamboree – there is money to be made from paper sales and SMSes announcing results.

The fact of the matter is that the matric certificate is in grave danger. It is the danger of meaninglessness, worthlessness and irrelevance.

All the problems of our basic education system find final expression in the perceived worth and trustworthiness (or lack thereof) of the National Senior Certificate (NSC), otherwise known as the matriculation certificate, and what it is supposed to stand for.

Nor must we be fooled by the steadily-rising pass rates, both for the Independent Examinations Board (IEB) and for the NSC examinations. I don’t trust the numbers or how they seem to be deftly engineered to produce a stable but steady annual growth.

At issue is not so much the exam process – which Umalusi triumphantly declared “fair, valid and credible”. It is the entire system that is at issue. The very discrepancy (of more than 25 percent) between the IEB and the NSC examinations speaks to a systemic range of issues.

To begin with, the IEB is a tiny speck when seen against the backdrop of the entire sector. Furthermore, an IEB-NSC split is also an economic one. The contrasting results are probably more indicative of economic disparity – and lack of economic transformation – than they are of pure talent and ability.

The same logic can help us understand discrepancies in provincial and district performances, for which we must be on the lookout when the results are announced.

At fault here is a system that has set the bar of achievement very low, with a “pass mark” of 33 percent. It will take more than sloganeering to correct this situation.

The continuing dismal performance in mathematics and science will not be assuaged by the introduction of subjects such as “mathematics literacy”.

Add to this the fact that the total number of matric pupils who write exams is half of the initial cohort – the other half having either fallen by the wayside owing to economic difficulties or pushed into the margins so as to “improve” matric results.

Twenty years after the dawn of democracy we still have matric pupils who write in mud schools and read using rickety paraffin lights in rural huts and squatter houses. These could be some of the most talented pupils, but they will either fail or manage only the bare minimum of the already-low achievement targets set for them.

Twenty years of democracy have not taught teachers and principals (of mainly black schools) to stop striking during school hours. Nor has the Department of Basic Education managed to have all its proverbial ducks in a row at the beginning of each academic year – 20 years later.

Given the above illustrative list of systemic problems, why should the NSC be trusted to denote a “fair, valid and credible” standard and quality?

Most South African universities take the matric results with a large pinch of salt, whether they say so openly or not. Why else would universities add their own additional requirements to the national matriculation university entry requirements? Why else would they be instituting, increasingly, compulsory enhancement programmes (at great expense) for new entrants into the higher education system?

The less than satisfactory university graduation rate that cuts across all tertiary institutions has to do, in part, with the lack of preparedness of new entrants.

The tragedy of South African education is that pupils coming from the poorest sections of society are sentenced to the poorest, least-equipped, strike-prone schools.

Invariably, these are the pupils who will perform badly. Clearly, their matric results are not a true reflection of their talent and ability.

Increasingly, employers are demonstrating their deep-seated doubt of the worth of the matric certificate.

Why should the matric certificate of either the star pupils or those who perform badly be trusted as an authentic reflection of talent and ability?

Unless the structural and systemic challenges are addressed decisively and urgently, a day may come soon when a matric certificate will be as meaningless as a bad cheque soon to be marked “return to drawer”.

Rescuing the matric certificate and what it stands for has become an urgent national task.

 

- Maluleke is deputy vice-chancellor: internationalisation, advancement and student affairs at the University of Johannesburg. He writes in his personal capacity.


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