The debates around South Africa’s school exam results need a richer flow of data

Martin Gustafsson, Stellenbosch University

South Africans place huge emphasis on the Matric examination results from the final year of secondary school – Grade 12. A school leaver’s chances of further education or a job depend heavily on skills reflected in the Matric certificate. Every year, national trends in these results stimulate debate about the nature and quality of education in the country, and the issues that shape it.

The release of the 2020 examination results in February 2021 could prompt an especially heated debate, given the backdrop of COVID-19 and school closures.

Investments in data and research over the last decade have provided a better sense of the educational quality trends below Grade 12 which underpin Matric. The evidence is clear that not only are more young people “matriculating”, what children learn is improving and is less unequally distributed, though the challenges remain stark.

But the evidence needs to be better disseminated. What would also help is better access to, and analysis of, the raw examinations data by a wider range of researchers. It may be true that examinations data are ill-suited for gauging trends, but without intensive analysis of this data, key questions remain around matters such as subject choices, subject difficulty, and examination standards.

More international comparisons would also assist the debates.

Matric trends viewed in context

In recent years, a little over half of youths have obtained a Matric certificate, in part because many leave school before Grade 12. This is often portrayed as a crisis. But is it?

International comparisons suggest this is not among the country’s largest problems. South Africa’s rate of successful completion of secondary schooling is in fact not unusual among middle income countries. What is somewhat unusual is that there is no national qualification below Grade 12 serving as a fallback for those not reaching Grade 12. The fact that a Grade 9 certificate should now be on the policy agenda seems a step in the right direction.

What is easily forgotten is how painfully slow educational progress is, be it in terms of quality or highest grade completed. Here again, use of international data sets can assist in gauging what the “speed limits” of progress might be, and hence realistic national targets.

The completion rate of Grade 12 should of course continue to increase. One way of doing this is to pay more attention to what second-chance Matric opportunities exist for young people. This is largely off the radar and poorly understood.

At any point there are around a quarter of a million youths engaged in some form of second-chance Matric activity. Yet success rates are low. How to improve these, through educational support and clearer online information, should feature strongly in the debates.

Turning to trends in the quality of Grade 12 learning outcomes, analysis of Matric achievement statistics in specific subjects in isolation from other data can be deceptive. To illustrate, reliable evidence of over decade of improvements in mathematics in Grade 9 should make one wary of Matric statistics suggesting the quality of mathematics in Grade 12 has declined. This is where interrogation of the raw Matric data becomes important.

On this matter, my own analysis points to the Grade 12 mathematics examinations having become more difficult over the years. While mark adjustments occur each year to improve comparability over time, these are never perfect. This is true for South Africa’s Matric system, and examination systems across the world.

Hopefully, recent streamlining of the Department of Basic Education’s data request procedures, and efforts by organisations such as DataFirst, the University of Cape Town’s data sharing facility, will allow more researchers to analyse the raw Matric data. The scope for this work is immense.

How the pandemic changes things

An exceptional upward adjustment of the 2020 examination marks will in all likelihood be necessary to avoid distorting flows into higher education institutions. This would not compromise standards in the long run, or result in sub-standard professionals in future. Universities understand that Matriculants are the product of twelve years of schooling. Few new skills are acquired in the very final year.

What is more concerning is that disruptions to schooling at the lower grades will not be remedied, and that deficits in the reading and numeracy foundations will be carried through into future years. This could have a serious impact on the quality of Matriculants a decade or more from now, and compromise their future prospects.

I’ve estimated the magnitudes of these risks. It is vital that recently designed catch-up strategies succeed.

Sustaining improvements seen in recent years

Before the pandemic, the quality improvement trajectory seen for over a decade in South Africa suggested that by 2030 the country could find itself where an average middle income country such as Malaysia is today. Even then, it was clear this could not be taken for granted, and that innovations were necessary to sustain the trend. The 2020 disruptions, and associated learning losses, have made the task even harder.

What is needed to improve learning outcomes is not really a mystery. There’s an abundance of evidence on what works. But I would highlight two things.

One is the need for more comparable data on learning outcomes, including reading, for all primary schools. Without good data at this level, it is virtually impossible for the authorities and for communities to hold principals accountable, in a fair and meaningful manner. It also becomes difficult to target support to those schools needing it most.

Secondly, analysis I did on the impacts of provincial boundary changes on Matric results demonstrates that the province you are in matters a lot. Learning outcomes should feature more integrally in the annual plans and reports of all the provincial education departments.

Martin Gustafsson, Education economist, Stellenbosch University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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