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Durban - The much-anticipated 2013 public school matric results will give a distorted account of the country’s basic education system, experts and unions have warned.
As it has been the norm between 2008 and 2012, a small matric pass percentage increase is expected. The National Senior Certificate pass rate improved from 62.6 percent in 2008 to 73.9 percent last year.
So, expect Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga to grace your television screen on January 6 looking and sounding all triumphant.
But the national pass rate is all that the public will get from Motshekga’s jamboree.
The pass rate will be presented as a milestone achievement. But it won’t indicate performance disparities between schools and districts.
It’s also a figure that doesn’t take into consideration pupils who dropped out of the system or failed grades from a cohort that started 12 years ago, experts said.
Zukiswa Kota, an education researcher at Rhodes University’s Public Service Accountability Monitor, said the average pass rate masks poor performance at under-resourced schools.
“Try to disaggregate the (results) data, and see what the pass rate means.
“It’s schools that are better resourced performing,” Kota said.
For the Eastern Cape, the focus on the results will “mask” problems of matrics in mud schools, overcrowded classrooms and those who were without some teachers.
“The pass rate masks the challenges. Even a significant pass rate improvement will not necessarily mean the system is improving,” said Kota.
Basil Manuel, president of the National Professional Teachers’ Organisation of South Africa, said: “When you read the report (about 2013 matric results), forget about the national pass rate. Look at performance across the districts and schools, and you’ll see the reality.”
Rich districts, where well-resourced schools are located, will perform better once again, he said.
Schools in poor areas of the Eastern Cape won’t outperform their affluent counterparts, Manuel said. “Why? It’s because teachers there were not employed on time.”
A number of schools in the Eastern Cape, which achieved the lowest pass rate last year with 61.6 percent, went the entire year without a full complement of needed teachers.
Manuel said anything other than a marginal points improvement in the matric results would raise eyebrows.
“I hope it will be a credible increase. If we have 5 percent, I’ll be very worried because it would be very unrealistic. I’m expecting an increase of maybe 2 or 3 percent.”
This is the sentiment shared by Nic Spaull, University of Stellenbosch education researcher. “If the pass rate improves more than a few percentage points (about 5 percentage points) it would be suspicious.”
A report Spaull conducted for the Centre for Development & Enterprise, a think-tank, and released last October concluded that matric results are “somewhat distorted” because they do not account for a cohort that should be writing the final examination.
A total of 576 000 matriculants sat for the 2013 matric exam as full-time candidates and 130 646 were part-time.
“The most important thing to remember about the matric results is that this only represents the top 50 percent of a cohort,” Spaull, said this week.
“About half of the cohort drops out before matric (mainly in Grade 10 and 11) so the “pass rate” is really only the pass rate for the top 50 percent who actually make it to matric.”
This phenomenon started under Motshekga’s predecessor, the late Kader Asmal, who was accused in the early 2000s of exerting too much pressure on schools to improve matric results, resulting in some schools “culling” poor performers and only allowing smart pupils to proceed to matric.
This created the impression that the matric pass rate was improving whereas there were thousands of pupils disappearing from the system – either not reaching Grade 12 on time or dropping out.
Asmal consistently denied this despite evidence in his department’s 2003 report showing that a smaller number of students were sitting the exams each year.
The root cause of underperformance and drop-out in later grades “is the low quality of education offered to most black students”, Spaull added.
“The solution lies in ensuring that every child acquires a solid foundation in primary school. Bad matric results and dropping out are the tip of an enormous iceberg.”
The inequality of the South African schooling system is one of the points Equal Education, the rights organisation, cites when it urges caution upon release of the matric results each year.
Brad Brockman, Equal Education’s general secretary, said: “We want more emphasis to be placed on retention rates, the quality of passes and inequality between schools.
“The majority of children in South Africa either drop out of school or fail matric. We need to ask ourselves why. So while we should write about and celebrate the achievements of those who manage to achieve despite all odds, our focus should really be on why the majority do not achieve.”
There was now an “increasing trend for universities to use the national benchmarking tests or university-specific entrance tests in addition to the matric results”, Spaull said.
“This is because the matric results alone cannot distinguish between those students who should and shouldn’t qualify for university. In the past universities only used matric results; now they use both.”
It is for this reason that most countries use the performance and results of lower grades – 3, 7 or 9 – to assess the quality of their education system.
Basic Education spokesman Panyaza Lesufi said the department would not comment.