Debates around school exam results in South Africa need a richer data stream

South Africans place great importance on the results of the Matric exam in the last year of high school – grade 12. The chances of a school graduate to continue their education or get a job are highly dependent on the skills reflected in the Matric certificate. Each 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 publication of the 2020 exam results in February 2021 could spark a particularly heated debate, given the context of COVID-19 and school closures.

Investments in data and research over the past decade have increased our understanding of the trends in the quality of education below grade 12 that underpin Matric. The evidence is clear that not only are more young people “enrolling”, but what children learn improves and is less unevenly distributed, although the challenges remain significant.

But the evidence needs to be better disseminated. What would also help is better access and better analysis of raw exam data by a wider range of researchers. It may be true that exam data is not suitable for assessing trends, but without intensive analysis of this data, key questions remain regarding such topics as choice of subjects, difficulty of subjects and standards of study. ‘exam.

More international comparisons would also help the discussions.

Matrix trends seen in context

In recent years, just over half of young people have obtained a high school certificate, in part because many of them leave school before grade 12. It is often described as a crisis. But is it?

International comparisons suggest this is not one of the country’s biggest problems. South Africa’s high school completion rate is actually not unusual among middle-income countries. What is somewhat unusual is that there is no national degree below grade 12 that serves as a fallback for those who do not reach grade 12. The fact that a grade 9 certificate should now be on the political agenda seems a step in the right direction.

What is easily forgotten is how painfully slow educational progress is, either in terms of quality or the highest level achieved. Again, the use of international datasets can help assess what might be the “speed limits” of progress, and therefore realistic national targets.

The grade 12 completion rate should of course continue to increase. One way to do this is to pay more attention to the matrix second chance opportunities that exist for young people. This is largely off the radar and poorly understood.

At any given time, approximately 250,000 young people are engaged in some form of second chance matrix activity. Yet the success rates are low. How to improve them, through educational support and clearer online information, should feature prominently in the discussions.

When it comes to trends in the quality of grade 12 learning outcomes, analyzing matrix achievement statistics in specific subjects in isolation from other data can be misleading. For example, reliable evidence from more than a decade of improvements in Grade 9 math should make one beware of matrix statistics suggesting that the quality of Grade 12 math has declined. This is where querying the raw raster data becomes important.

In this regard, my own analysis indicates that the Grade 12 math exams have become more difficult over the years. Although grade adjustments occur every year to improve comparability over time, they are never perfect. This is true for South Africa’s matrix system and review systems around the world.

Hopefully the recent streamlining of the Department of Basic Education’s data request procedures and the efforts of organizations such as DataFirst, the University of Cape Town’s data-sharing facility, will enable more researchers to analyze raw data from Matric. The scope of this work is immense.

How the pandemic is changing

An exceptional upward revision of the 2020 exam scores will likely be necessary to avoid distorting flows to higher education institutions. This would not compromise long-term standards, nor result in lower quality professionals in the future. Universities understand that matriculants are the product of twelve years of schooling. Few new skills are learned in the very last year.

What is more worrying is that the disruptions in schooling in the lower grades will not be corrected and that the deficits in the basics of reading and arithmetic will continue in the years to come. This could have a serious impact on the quality of registrants in a decade or more and jeopardize their future prospects.

I estimated the magnitude of these risks. It is vital that newly designed remedial strategies succeed.

Sustained improvements observed in recent years

Prior to the pandemic, the quality improvement trajectory observed for over a decade in South Africa suggested that by 2030, the country could be where a middle-middle-income country like the Malaysia. Even then, it was clear that this couldn’t be taken for granted and that innovations were needed to support the trend. The disruptions of 2020 and the associated learning losses made the task even more difficult.

What is needed to improve learning outcomes is hardly a mystery. There is an abundance of evidence on what works. But I would like to emphasize 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 authorities and communities to hold school leaders to account in a fair and meaningful way. It is also becoming difficult to target support on the schools that need it most.

Second, the analysis I did on the impacts of provincial border changes on Matric’s results shows that the province you are in counts a lot. Learning outcomes should be included in a more integrated manner in the annual plans and reports of all provincial ministries of education.


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