Does pass-or-fail sys­tem need over­haul?

Cau­tion is needed when analysing ma­tric re­sults. Our school prob­lems are many

The Star Early Edition - - POLITICS - EL­IZ­A­BETH WALTON El­iz­a­beth Walton is As­so­ciate Pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­sity of the Wit­wa­ter­srand.

SOUTH Africans are por­ing over the lat­est set of ma­tric re­sults, which show how the coun­try’s school leavers per­formed in their fi­nal ex­ams af­ter 12 years of for­mal school­ing.

Nearly 718 000 peo­ple wrote the ex­ams and 72.5 per­cent of them passed – a small in­crease on last year.

The re­sults al­ways gen­er­ate a great deal of de­bate – and of­ten anger. The Con­ver­sa­tion Africa’s ed­u­ca­tion edi­tor

Natasha Joseph asked As­so­ciate Pro­fes­sor El­iz­a­beth Walton to ex­plain the re­sults and why it’s cru­cial to re­mem­ber the young peo­ple be­hind the num­bers.

Natasha Joseph: There’s a huge fo­cus on ma­tric re­sults ev­ery year, par­tic­u­larly on the na­tional pass rate. Is this a use­ful ob­ses­sion?

El­iz­a­beth Walton: I am not con­vinced that this an­nual ob­ses­sion with ma­tric re­sults is pro­duc­tive. The na­tional pass rate is a very blunt in­stru­ment with which to dis­sect South Africa’s very com­plex ed­u­ca­tional prob­lems. The na­tional pass rate ob­scures im­por­tant dif­fer­ences in pro­vin­cial achieve­ments, the ur­ban/ ru­ral di­vide and the un­equal out­comes for learn­ers in poorer schools.

It also does not tell us much about the qual­ity of the passes, nor about the sub­jects taken. The na­tional pass rate also re­flects only the learn­ers who sat the exam. It does not take into ac­count the num­bers of early school leavers who did not make it to ma­tric.

This year the an­nounce­ment by Angie Mot­shekga, the Min­is­ter of Ba­sic Ed­u­ca­tion, showed 828 020 can­di­dates reg­is­tered for the ex­am­i­na­tions. But only 717 971 – full-time and part-time – ac­tu­ally wrote the ex­ams. This means that more than 100 000 learn­ers made it to Grade 12, but fell be­fore the fi­nal hur­dle.

NJ: Is a fi­nal set of ex­ams at the end of 12 years of school­ing the best way for South Africa to judge pupils’ readi­ness for en­ter­ing the world of work or con­tin­u­ing on to ter­tiary ed­u­ca­tion? What other op­tions ex­ist?

EW: Many ed­u­ca­tion sys­tems around the world com­bine a school-based as­sess­ment com­po­nent with some ex­ter­nal stan­dard­ised as­sess­ment as a school leav­ing qual­i­fi­ca­tion. But it seems to me we should not be look­ing at a ma­jor change at this stage. The sys­tem needs to set­tle and ma­ture. I do think, though, it would be good to re­visit South African aca­demic Pro­fes­sor Stephanie Al­lais’ pro­posal that the cur­rent pass or fail sys­tem be scrapped.

She sug­gests learn­ers should in­stead be al­lowed to complete Grade 12 with a bas­ket of sub­jects and re­sults which could then be pre­sented to an em­ployer or in­sti­tu­tion of higher learn­ing.

This would shift the fo­cus from the na­tional pass rate to the en­rol­ment and re­sults of in­di­vid­ual sub­jects. It might also mean that schools could be less con­cerned with an over­all school pass rate and rather fo­cus on sub­ject-level im­prove­ment over time.

It is pos­si­ble to im­prove a school’s pass rate with­out ac­tu­ally im­prov­ing teach­ing and learn­ing; for ex­am­ple by find­ing ways to ex­clude learn­ers who may com­pro­mise a school’s re­sults, or by not of­fer­ing sub­jects that are per­ceived to be dif­fi­cult, like maths and phys­i­cal science. I also think we need to be re­al­is­tic in terms of what we ex­pect a ma­tric qual­i­fi­ca­tion to sig­nal. For those who are not look­ing to pur­sue fur­ther ed­u­ca­tion, a ma­tric cer­tifi­cate is ex­pected to pro­vide proof of prepa­ra­tion for the world of work. Oth­ers ex­pect it to pro­vide ev­i­dence of the foun­da­tions of aca­demic lit­er­acy.

To ad­dress this “one-size-fits-all” ma­tric, the Depart­ment of Ba­sic Ed­u­ca­tion has pro­posed a three-stream ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem with an Aca­demic Stream, a Tech­ni­cal Vo­ca­tional Stream and a Tech­ni­cal Oc­cu­pa­tional Stream. This is ex­pected to ad­dress the prob­lem of early school leav­ing and pre­pare learn­ers for the world of work.

NJ: Maths and science re­sults of­ten get the most at­ten­tion. They are ob­vi­ously im­por­tant “ca­naries in the coal mine” that point to the sys­tem’s over­all health. But are there sub­jects that de­serve more at­ten­tion and whose re­sults can paint a pic­ture of what’s go­ing wrong – or right?

EW: I think it is vi­tal that maths and science re­tain our at­ten­tion, for sev­eral rea­sons. These are gate­way sub­jects for the science, tech­nol­ogy, en­gi­neer­ing and maths oc­cu­pa­tions South Africa ur­gently needs to de­velop. They’re also sub­jects that bear huge scars of apartheid’s legacy. They also build se­quen­tially: poor foun­da­tions are not eas­ily ad­dressed by late in­ter­ven­tions.

Hav­ing said that I do think that lan­guages, par­tic­u­larly in­dige­nous African lan­guages, also need our fo­cus to se­cure their growth and devel­op­ment. The in­tro­duc­tion of South African Sign Lan­guage as a home lan­guage ex­am­ined at ma­tric level is a def­i­nite suc­cess story.

NJ: What if you’re a young per­son who’s failed ma­tric? What’s your best op­tion?

EW: Any anal­y­sis of the ma­tric re­sults must hold in ten­sion the sys­tem and the in­di­vid­ual. We can­not ig­nore the fact that there are real young peo­ple with hopes and dreams be­hind all the num­bers.

Fail­ure is dev­as­tat­ing. Those who don’t suc­ceed are pre­sumed to be lazy and dis­in­ter­ested in ed­u­ca­tion. In fact, ed­u­ca­tional suc­cess in South Africa has much to do with house­hold in­come, the lo­ca­tion of the school and good early child­hood and foun­da­tion phase ed­u­ca­tion op­por­tu­ni­ties.

There are op­por­tu­ni­ties to re­write through the depart­ment’s Sec­ond Chance Pro­gramme. – The Con­ver­sa­tion

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