The recent and unprecedented release by Umalusi, the body responsible for maintaining standards in the Matric exams, of the adjustments made to the 2010 scores has underlined how important it is to treat the Matric pass rate with care. Contrary to popular belief, the Matric pass rate on its own is not a good measure of academic achievement in the schooling system, nor was the pass rate ever designed for this. However, the pass rate can serve as a measure of the opportunities open to our youths. If these opportunities increase, then we should celebrate.
The Matric pass rate, or the percentage of Grade 12 learners in public schools who obtain their National Senior Certificate, is understandably something that provokes lively debate and a fair amount of anguish every year. The fact that the pass rate went up from 60.6% in 2009 to 67.8% in 2010 made headlines. To provide some idea of previous trends, in 2001 the pass rate exceeded 60% for the first time since 1994, but following a peak of almost 75% in 2003, there had been a fairly steady decline.
2010 seemed to mark the beginning of a new upswing. But there were doubts. How could such a dramatic improvement follow the worst teacher strike the country had ever seen?
Misgivings about the marks adjustment process prompted Umalusi to open to public scrutiny, for the first time ever, documents from the standardisation process. The documents appeared to reassure the public that there had not been any undue inflating of subject marks – Umalusi is only able to adjust subject marks, not the pass rate directly. They moreover confirmed that improvements in individual subjects were smaller than the improvement that was seen in the pass rate. As an example, of the eight most commonly taken non-language subjects, one subject saw no change in the average mark, two saw a decline in the average and five saw an increase. In the case of the five subjects with an increase, the average increase was 3.5 points out of 100.
How, one may ask, is it possible to have increases of around 3.5 points in some subject averages whilst the overall pass rate increases by a whole 7.2 percentage points? A key factor is the spread of learners across subjects. When this changes, the pass rate can change, even if performance in individual subjects remains the same. In particular, if learners move to easier subjects, more learners pass. There was in fact a small shift from the harder mathematics to the easier mathematical literacy between 2009 and 2010. The percentage of learners taking mathematics dropped from 51% to 48% – learners must take one of the two subjects.
Another important factor that influences the pass rate is the number of examination candidates. When this decreases, the percentage of well-performing learners tends to be higher, largely because the holding back of worse performing learners in Grade 11 in the previous year has been more widespread. 2010 in fact saw slightly fewer full-time candidates than 2009: around 559 000 against 581 000. This is almost certainly a factor that contributed towards the higher pass rate in 2010.
Comparing pass rates in different years is in fact not like comparing apples to apples. This is not a uniquely South African phenomenon. Examinations like our Matric are simply not designed to compare the performance of the schooling system across years. They are designed to test whether the individual learner qualifies for a certificate, based on the subjects the learner has chosen. If one wants to compare how well the system is doing, one should turn to testing systems like the international TIMSS and SACMEQ programmes, where South Africa has participated for some years.
So is there any cause for celebration when our Matric pass rate improves? Yes, if this means that more youths have a certificate that provides access to further studies or employment. Moreover, the fact that the average mark in certain individual subjects should have increased, for instance from 35% to 38% in life sciences (formerly biology) between 2009 and 2010 does provide an indication that learners are learning better and this should also be celebrated.
More learners need to pass Matric. This is very clear. In comparison to other similar developing countries, South Africa’s enrolment up to Grade 11 is above average. In Grade 12 enrolment is around average. But the number of Grade 12 learners successfully finishing their grade, and therefore secondary schooling, by obtaining their Matric, is low by international standards. The pass rate needs to improve further, both through better learning and therefore performance in individual subjects, and through ensuring that learners choose the combination of subjects that maximises their opportunities. The latter is not easy. Better counselling is needed. But the Grade 9 standardised assessments currently being introduced should partly be aimed at giving learners a better sense of where their strengths lie and hence what subjects they should select for the critical last three years of school.