Pass rate all smoke and mirrors
Watching the annual release of the matric results by the minister of basic education is like watching a magic show as a teenager.
You know it is all sleight of hand, but the entertainment is seductive and half the people watching the show actually believe the nonsense.
Unbelievably, those who saw through the deception received a warning in a letter from the National Education Collaboration Trust (NECT), which one can only assume is now the marketing arm of government: “Analysts, commentators, politicians and parents should minimise the negative opinion of our public education system”.
“Our teachers and pupils need their encouragement.”
Well, Mr Godwin Khosa [CEO of NECT], they also need the truth.
Abracadabra. The pass rate is 5.2 percentage points above the average pass rate for the pass rate of 73% achieved over the past eight years. Wow.
If you believe that, you deserve to be deceived by the magic show. As any beginning statistics student will tell you, no system that is chronically dysfunctional for 80% of its schools, makes that kind of leap without dramatic and observable system-wide improvements in teaching and learning.
Since that shift clearly did not happen in our schools, what on earth is going on here?
As my colleague Nic Spaull at Stellenbosch University has argued, the real sleight of hand happened back in March 2018 when the minister expanded the list of “designated subjects” beyond physical science, mathematics, history, geography, etc that you needed to obtain a bachelor’s pass.
Suddenly, easy-to-pass subjects were included, such as tourism, dance and hospitality, in which very large numbers of pupils write the examination (about 130,000 in tourism alone) and virtually everyone passes – 100% pass in dance, 99% pass in hospitality.
Somebody in government was doing forward planning for this election year.
Abracadabra. The pass rate is 78%. Really? Let’s check the facts, courtesy of nicspaull.com.
Of 100 children who started grade 1 in 2007, barely 51 made it to grade 12 and only 40 passed.
In other words, the pass rate is closer to 40% given that about 400,000 students left the system before grade 12.
So if the government and its lapdog (NECT) wants you to believe that the only children who matter are those who showed up for the examination, then of course it is easy to get to 78%.
But if you imply that “the public education system” has improved, this is pure magic. It did not happen.
What we know for sure is that the system is broken. A much more objective account of the health of South African education was the Progress in Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) data released in 2018 that showed that almost eight out of 10 grade 4 children cannot read for understanding.
That kind of data, like other international benchmark tests, places SA near-last or last in comparative assessments of science, mathematics and reading scores.
So why are we so eager to participate in this annual magic show? Is it because of the felt need for good news, given our divisive politics and stagnant economy?
Is it that we do not want to “rain on the parade” of the individual pupils who really did work hard to achieve their distinctions and their university entrance passes? Or has our own education failed us with the ability to distinguish magic from reality?
There is another reality that will soon blow the tent cover of this ridiculous magic show. A year from now, more than 40% of these pupils with their bachelor’s passes will drop out of the first year of university and only 29% will obtain a three-year degree in regulation time.
The reason is simple – the matric examination is all smoke and mirrors when it comes to deep learning in the subject matter.
For example, one social media posting boasted of a young woman who passed grade 12 with six distinctions in a disadvantaged school without a science laboratory or a library.
I am of course delighted for the pupil. But anyone who tells you that you can learn physics or the life sciences without laboratory tests and experiments, is part of the magic show.
What this student in all likelihood has learnt is how to memorise and regurgitate content, anticipate exam questions, and practise exam writing through arrangements, such as the “prelim” examinations. University learning demands exactly the opposite.
The Iranian version of “abracadabra” is Ajji Majji la Tarajji which means “Alla Peanut Butter Sandwiches”. It is complete nonsense words, of course. Like this annual spectacle around the release of the matric results.