Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga and other officials with the top learners for the Class of 2019 at a breakfast at Vodacom World in Midrand. Picture: Karen Sandison/African News Agency (ANA)
South Africa’s Department of Basic Education released the country’s National Senior Certificate results for the Class of 2019 this week. These are commonly known as the “matric results” and they determine school-leavers’ admission and placement into tertiary level study.

About 81.3% of those who wrote the exams passed. There has been well-deserved celebration of this achievement of the highest post- apartheid national matric pass rate.

What the country is not hearing about from Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga is the drop in performance in maths.

It is one of the “gateway” subjects, subjects which are considered critical for the country’s economic growth and development.

This decline can be measured in two ways. There is a reduction in the number of learners writing maths, from 270516 in 2018 to 222034 in 2019. The second measure is performance: only 54% of learners who wrote the exam passed. This pass rate is down from 58% in 2018.

The minimum score for a pass is 30%. This means only 54% of maths exam candidates achieved a mark of at least 30%. Of all the maths candidates, only 2% (4415) achieved distinctions - down from 2.5% in 2018. A distinction is a score of 80%-100%.

Why does this matter?

The drop in numbers of pupils writing the Grade 12 maths exam should be of great concern. Performance in maths matters for university entrance. Without it, school-leavers are not eligible for programmes at university in science or engineering, or some in commerce.

A decline signals the closing of the doors of opportunity in these fields to a growing number of students. This will only increase inequality.

Economics researcher Nic Spaull’s research has shown that the top 200 high schools in the country produce 97% of the maths distinctions. The majority of these schools charge significant fees.

The deterioration in performance is also of great concern. Getting a pass (30%) may secure a diploma or university entrance, but these low pass marks will not prepare learners to succeed at maths at university level.

This development runs contrary to the needs of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which requires highly competent graduates in the science, technology, engineering and maths areas. Strong performance in maths is essential for careers in computing, programming, finance and machine learning.

UCT taking responsibility for its share in these dismal results

Universities cannot absolve themselves of this challenge. At UCT, data from the Courses Impeding Graduation project is being analysed to better understand incoming students’ challenges, specifically in courses like Mathematics 1.

In this course, a worrying pattern of performance emerged. A minimum mark of 70% for maths in matric is needed to get into Mathematics 1 at the university.

Based on several years of data, an average of 33% of learners fail this course. Those learners who enter with a 90% mark for maths in matric score a pass in Mathematics 1 with an average mean of 64%.

Those learners who achieved between 80% and 89% in matric fail the course with an average mean of 47%. Those who achieved between 70% and 79% in matric fail with an average mean of 43%.

Unless a learner achieved a distinction for maths at school level, they are at risk of failing it at university level. Learners who fail Mathematics 1 will inevitably take longer to complete their degree and are at higher risk of being excluded from the university.

Dealing with the problem

UCT is taking responsibility for its share in these dismal results. A number of interventions have been put in place over recent years to provide additional support to students. These include “maths labs”, Saturday workshops, and even providing multilingual resources to support students who are not yet fluent in the medium of instruction.

Expert maths teachers have been appointed to lecture this challenging course. But the overall failure rates of approximately one-third of the class have remained stubbornly in place. A decision was taken in 2019 to revise the Mathematics 1 curriculum to ensure greater alignment between schooling and university curriculum.

This kind of curriculum review raises several complex issues:

What is the appropriate content to ensure a relatively seamless transition from school maths to university maths?

Do different disciplinary areas like actuarial science, chemistry and engineering need different kinds of mathematics courses?

How can the pacing of the curriculum accommodate different learning needs?

How can educational technology support innovative forms of teaching and learning mathematics?

These are global issues, not unique to South Africa. The national euphoria around the national pass rate means nothing if it hides problems such as declining maths performance.

* Shay is a professor at UCT.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media

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