The more things change...
The results of Grahamstown’s 2016 public school matriculants have surpassed expectations. Performance in the June and September (‘Trial’) examinations pointed to a likely aggregate pass rate in the vicinity of 55%.
Yet the results released on 5 January yielded a city pass rate of 70,5%, which is a significant improvement on the 61.6% pass rate of 2015.
In this analysis I delve into the numbers and statistics with a view to trying to make sense of both 2016 realities and underlying trends in the local results over the recent period.
Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga announced the national results in a television broadcast on 4 January. It was a confusing and highly selective rendition, characterised by numerous gaffes, most notably her continued reference to Mathematics, English and the like as ‘getaway subjects’ rather than ‘gateway subjects’.
The most useful comment she made was her admission that “the Grade 12 examinations are not primarily designed to measure whether there is progress in the system as a whole, or even in individual schools. The main purpose of these examinations is to provide learners with an exit qualification”.
This is the context in which Umalusi’s standardisation of the results should be understood.
Every year, the quality assurance body considers the raw marks of the 60 or so matric subjects, in relation to the results of previous years. Based on this consideration, in 2016 Umalusi adjusted 32 subjects. That is, it accepted and retained the results that learners actually obtained in less than half of the subjects.
Of the 32 subjects adjusted by Umalusi, 28 were adjusted upwards (the results were inflated) and only four downwards. That is, on balance the marks that appear on learners’ Statements of Results are higher than the marks that they actually obtained in the examinations.
It is particularly important in the local context to emphasise that three of the subjects that were adjusted upwards were those that are historically the most failed in Grahamstown, namely Mathematical Literacy, Life Sciences and Geography.
Let me point out the implications of this on the pass rate by looking specifically at Mathematical Literacy.
Through the course of 2016, this was the most problematic of all matric subjects at the city’s township schools. The average in Mathematical Literacy in the Trial examinations was less than 30%.
That is, a majority of learners registered for Mathematical Literacy at these schools failed this subject in September.
A learner fails outright if he or she fails two or more subjects. The large number of Mathematical Literacy failures underpinned a number of outright fails.
Umalusi has disclosed that in Mathematical Literacy in 2016, a raw mark of 30% was increased up to 37% through the standardisation process.
Unsurprisingly, this upward adjustment bolstered the pass rates significantly. For example, at one of township schools the average in Mathematical Literacy in Trials was 24% whereas in Finals it increased all the way up to 38%.
This was one of the factors that resulted in the overall pass rate at that particular school almost doubling from Trials to Finals. (This also assisted the Gadra Matric School to record a 100% pass rate for the first time in over a decade.)
In other words, Umalusi’s standardisation process had a dramatic effect on overall school pass rates.
If Umalusi’s mission is, in the words of its CEO Mafu Rakometsi, “to deliver a relatively constant product to the market”, then it has accomplished this pretty well in Grahamstown.
Over the past four years, 409 (2016), 424 (2015), 409 (2014) and 416 (2013) local candidates have obtained a National Senior Certificate, and 171 (2016), 179 (2015), 193 (2014) and 187 (2013) have obtained Bachelor level passes.
But the cost of this consistency, it should be understood, is a steady lowering of standards. As Nic Spaull and others have pointed out, universities respond to this by continuously increasing their admission criteria.
A percentage pass rate is produced by dividing the number of candidates who passed by the total of candidates who wrote the examinations.
Above it was noted that the number of passing candidates produced by the city over the past four years has remained in a tight range between a low of 409 (produced in 2016 and 2014) and a high of 424 (produced in 2015).
Yet the pass rate has fluctuated much more significantly, across a much greater range, from a low of 60.5% in 2013 to a high of 72.8% in 2014.
This of course is explained by reference to the fact that the number of candidates who have sat for the final examinations in Grahamstown has swung wildly in recent years, from 688 in 2013 down to 562 in 2014, then back up to 688 in 2015 and finally down to 580 in 2016.
In this regard, Grahamstown has not followed the national trend of increasing Wrote 2013 numbers of full-time matric candidates. Paradoxically, when the city does better at learner retention (i.e. in years when more learners make it to matric and write their final examinations) its pass rate drops and when it does worse at learner retention, its pass rate rises.
2016 was a bad year for learner retention and a good year for the pass rate.
One of the main reasons for the lower number of candidates in 2016 was the Department’s insistence on so-called modularisation fairly late in the year. This new policy dictated that progressed matriculants who did not pass their Trial examinations were not permitted to write the final examinations as full-time students. (Progression is the controversial policy that enables certain learners who fail Grade 11 to ‘progress’ to Grade 12.)
Affected learners were forced to split their subjects across two sets of examinations (October/ November 2016 and June 2017). In this way, they were taken out of the full-time 2016 statistics, thereby elevating the pass rate.
For example, Mary Waters started the year with 143 fulltime candidates but only 120 were resulted on 5 January, and Ntsika started with 87 but only 70 remained as full-time candidates at year-end.
So, what progression did, modularisation un-did. Modularisation mitigated the effects that unbridled progression would have had on the 2016 pass rate.
In all of this, the ones who lose academically and educationally are the progressed/ modularised individual learners.
The most significant indicator of a good quality matric certificate is a ‘Bachelor level’. Candidates obtain this accolade by obtaining more than 50% in four designated (or university recognised) subjects and it enables them to apply Passed Wrote 2014 School to universities to pursue Bachelor level studies.
Over the period 2013–2015 Grahamstown’s schools produced between 179 and 193 Bachelor passes per year.
In 2016, the number produced declined marginally, down to 171. While the 2016 decline is regrettable, again these data indicate a system that is stable or at least reasonably consistent in relation to outcomes achieved at the top-end.
However, probably the most important comment to make about the production of public school Bachelor passes in Grahamstown is that the vast majority of them come from the former ‘Model C’ schools, namely Victoria Girls’ High School, Graeme College and Hoërskool PJ Olivier.
In 2016 these three schools obtained 120 Bachelor passes, whereas the six township high schools produced 51. If one looks at ordinary passes during recent years, over 95% of learners at former Model C schools obtain certificates, whereas between 50% and 60% of township school matriculants make the grade.
However, this differential widens considerably when looking at the percentages of learners that obtain Bachelor level passes at the two different categories of schools; historically, between 70% and 80% of learners at former Model C schools in Grahams- Wrote 2015 Passed town obtain Bachelor passes, whereas only between 10% and 15% of matriculants at township schools reach this level. In 2016, the percentages in this regard are 71% and 12% respectively. That is to say, seven out of every 10 matriculants at Victoria Girls, Graeme and PJ Olivier obtained a Bachelor level NSC in 2016, whereas only one of every 10 learners at Ntsika, Mary Waters, Nombulelo, Nathaniel Nyaluza, TEM Mrwetyana and Khutliso Daniels exited the schooling system with this invaluable qualification.
These divides are wide, deep and stubborn.
The categorisation used above is necessary for analytic reasons, but it would be incorrect to paint all schools within each category with the same brush.
As far as the former Model C schools are concerned, Victoria Girls and Graeme are to be warmly commended for having achieved a 100% pass rate, with the former again contributing the lion’s share of public school Bachelors.
Turning attention to the former township schools, the most noteworthy development is the ongoing rise of Ntsika. For the first time since I have been analysing Grahamstown results, a township school has obtained a higher pass rate than a former Model C school in the matric exami- Wrote 2016 Passed nations.
The real highlight of Ntsika’s performance, though, is its doubling of Bachelor passes, from 11 in 2015 to 22 in 2016.
It is also necessary to note that select learners at various township schools produced truly outstanding results.
In this regard, I would like to single out Vuyolwethu Zumani, Monique Stock and Akhusele Somhlahlo. These and other determined and dedicated young people deserve the wholehearted praise and acclamation of all the city’s residents.
In conclusion, what is becoming increasing clear is that public schooling in Grahamstown is characterised by what can be termed ‘structural continuity’. At the macro level, every year it produces a similar number of matric passes and a similar number of Bachelor passes.
Year in and year out, performance differs vastly between the former Model C schools and the township schools. Yet in 2016 the esteemed principal at Ntsika, Madeleine Schoeman, has shown that leadership and resolve can be remarkably effective, even in the most trying of circumstances. • Ashley Westaway is the manager of Gadra