The truth about South Africa’s ‘misleading’ matric pass rates

Civil society group, Equal Education, has warned that the annual matric pass rate announcement is a misleading fanfare that provides a poor indication of the overall health of the basic education system.

In a statement released on Thursday (3 January), the group said that while passing matric is a tremendous achievement for each individual learner, the final matric pass rate fails to include those students who dropped out before Grade 12.

“The learning backlogs that develop and deepen in the early years of schooling, are a major contributor to learners dropping out of school,” Equal Education said.

“Particularly concerning is that approximately 12% of young people still do not even complete Grade 9. These learners are especially vulnerable as they are less likely to have basic literacy skills and they leave school without any formal qualification.

“In 2015, almost half of all learners without a Grade 9 qualification – or a General Education and Training Certificate – were in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape.”

Due to consistently high learner dropout rates, Equal Education considered the throughput rate alongside the traditional matric pass rate.

The group defined the throughput rate as the percentage of learners who were in Grade 2 together, and who 10 years later went on to pass matric together.

It also used a similar calculation for learners who were in Grade 10 together, and who go on to pass matric two years later.

“In contrast to the department of basic education’s (DBE) claim that the matric pass rate has consistently been above 70% over the past few years and that it is increasing, a look at the throughput rate suggests that the pass rate has actually been declining and ranges between 41% and 37%,” it said.

For the 2018 cohort, education monitoring group Umalusi reported that just over 796,000 matrics sat the exams, whereas 1,031,821 learners were part of the cohort in grade 2 in 2008. Whatever the announced pass rate is, it excludes the 235,000 learners who fell out along the way.

“Without access to more detailed data, this metric unfortunately remains rather crude – it is affected by learners who repeat grades or leave school to attend technical and vocational education training (TVET) colleges.

“Nonetheless, detailed analysis released by the DBE itself suggests that when these factors are considered, the real pass rate still hovered just above 50% for the past couple of years – a far cry from the 70% plus pass rate touted by Minister Motshekga every year,” it said.

Provincial issues

Equal Education said that there are also issues in how the DBE  ranks provinces in terms of matric pass rates each year.

According to the group this annual announcement – based on the traditional pass rate – not only fails to consider learner dropout rates, it also ignores the immense contextual disparities between rural and urban provinces.

“The provinces that reflected the largest improvements in their 2017 pass rates (Eastern Cape, Limpopo and Kwazulu-Natal), were also the provinces with the biggest decrease in learners who wrote the matric exams,” it said.

“This points to a worrying practice that is commonly associated with high stakes testing: often referred to as ‘culling’ or ‘gate-keeping’.

“Teachers or principals sometimes hold learners back in Grade 11 or encourage them to take different subjects in order to improve pass rates.”


Read: What to do if you failed your 2018 matric exams

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The truth about South Africa’s ‘misleading’ matric pass rates