School pass marks in South Africa vs the rest of the world

 ·15 Apr 2018

The Department of Basic Education recently requested public comment on several new proposals for changes to pass marks at public schools in South Africa.

Among the changes – which comprise mostly of clarifications of the terms within legislation – there are also proposals to change what constitutes a pass for a learner, and alterations for promotion requirements from grades 7 to 9.

As it stands in South Africa, anything under 30% is considered a fail – but pass conditions are a little bit more complicated than maintaining a 30% average at bare minimum. Specifically, learners have to get:

  • 50% or more in one language at Home Language level;
  • 40% or more in the second required official language at First Additional Language level;
  • 40% or more in Mathematics;
  • 40% or more in any three of the other required subjects – including Natural Sciences, Life Orientation, Social Sciences, Arts and Culture, and Economic Management Sciences.

The department wants this changed to:

  • 40% in four subjects, one of which is a Home Language;
  • Any three subjects at 30%;
  • A condonation of 2% in one subject if it will lead to a pass;

The stricter conditions aside, in South Africa’s current grading system, a fail at 29% (with 30% being an ‘elementary pass’), makes the barrier between success and failure one of the lowest in the world.

South Africa already has a reputation for having a poor education system, particularly in the fields of mathematics and science, and the low pass mark is often cited as one of the biggest problems, as it sets the bar quite low in assessment.

Global grading systems

Grading systems around the world are vastly different and have different thresholds for distinction and levels of performance. Some countries use a 10-grade scale, and others use 7-grades or less. These measures can differ between states or provinces, or even individual schools in some cases.

In some European countries – such as Austria – they have moved away from percentage grading entirely, to describing performance levels – like “very good”, “satisfactory” or “very very bad”.

Generally speaking, however, standard ‘pass’ barriers around the world can be divided into three main levels.

The first is around 50% – seen in countries like Australia, Canada, and many European countries. This is also the barrier between a pass and a fail in South African universities.

There are then two other thresholds on either side that make up barriers for passing and failure: 40% – as seen in countries like Japan, New Zealand, Ireland and the UK; and 60% – seen in countries like the USA, China, the Netherlands and Morocco.

There are outliers to both the upper and lower rates – in the USA, for instance, some states or schools set the failure mark to anything below 65%; and in the Philippines, a fail can be below 72% or even 75% at some institutions.

South Africa’s 29% fail line is on the lower side of the exceptions, below places like India, where a fail can be anything below 33%, and the same level and Myanmar, which is also set at 29%.

South Africa’s matric results

For the first time, the Department of Basic Education has published a full breakdown on subject pass levels in its 2017 School Subject Report, which allows us to see exactly how well South Africa’s matrics performed, and how many would have matriculated at higher pass levels.

At South Africa’s current pass barrier of 30%, the 2017 matric class passed with a rate of 75.1% – but if the pass barrier was 40%, this would drop to around 54%.

If South Africa’s matric class needed 50% to pass, the pass rate would have only been around 33%, and if we had to meet the 60% barrier seen in some other countries, only 16% of matrics would have made the cut.

With a pass barrier at 70% (as seen in the Philippines), only 7% of South Africa’s matrics would have passed.

The table below outlines the pass levels across 11 full time matric subjects written in 2017. In total, over 2.5 million papers were written across all subjects by 800,000 students. 1.9 million of these papers were passed at the South African minimum level of 30%.

Pass level Number of 2017 Matrics % of total
30% or more 1 909 207 75.8%
40% or more 1 351 230 53.6%
50% or more 819 023 32.5%
60% or more 412 531 16.4%
70% or more 171 510 6.8%
80% or more 55 042 2.2%
90% or more 9 870 0.4%

Read: What parents really think about local schools and the quality of education in South Africa

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