SA should scrap pass-or-fail exam results - TechCentral

SA should scrap pass-or-fail exam results


In South Africa, as in many countries, the release of senior secondary school exam results, referred to locally as “the Matric”, causes a media furore every year. At 18 years old, students either pass or fail and their results are published in early January in the newspapers by the government.

In 1996, the pass rate was 46%, rising to 78,2% in 2013. The percentage refers to how many of those who enrolled for the examinations passed at least five of their six chosen subjects. (Students can attain a National Senior Certificate with three subjects at 30% if they have the other three at 40%; the specifics have changed somewhat over the years.)

The rapid rise has led to concerns about falling standards -– linked to the high pass rate, the low marks required to pass and the fact that the results are subjected to statistical moderation. Others have argued that the system is failing to prepare students for higher education and the job market.

The problem is not that we have exams. Strong national curricula accompanied by rigorous national exams play a major role in building educational equality and supporting the universalising potential of education. But having a single metric for measuring the health of the education system distracts attention and distorts policy interventions, as I have argued in a recent paper.

Instead, South Africa should do away with the pass mark, and issue learners a certificate containing simply a list of their grades, without the notion of passing or failing -– a system already used in Kenya.

Some suggest that senior secondary school should be completely separated from university entrance, as is done in the US. But not having a single set of examinations may have negative affects on educational quality and equality, with dramatically divergent standards. This type of standardised assessment, separated from prescribed curricula, tends to lead to many negative consequences such as very narrow teaching.

We want our children to learn important bodies of knowledge -– and improving how this is assessed can improve how it is taught. But senior secondary schooling has to serve a range of purposes. Most countries around the world are grappling with increased youth unemployment, while education levels are substantially outpacing the educational requirements of much work.

There is pressure in many countries to make school curricula more academic, as more and more learners want, or feel obliged, to go to higher education. But at the same time school curricula are increasingly expected to mimic or reproduce the world of work.

A common justification for increasing the vocational content of the school curriculum is that in the past many children would not have been at school. These children, it is argued, cannot cope with the academic curriculum of a general liberal education, or have no interest in it, but could gain useful skills through school.

In South Africa, large numbers of our children enrol for semi-vocational subjects — business studies is taken by about 40% of secondary school students and tourism by 20% — that are not teaching them either robust academic skills by building concepts and knowledge, nor preparing them for work in any meaningful way.

Many European countries, such as Germany, have a limited set of strong but different qualifications, one of which prepares learners for academia –- and one or two others that are more vocationally orientated. This generally works for universities as it supports a strong academic track for students. Where there are substantial good career options for mid-level occupations -– and where companies offer apprenticeships -– this is a viable option for all learners, although it has the disadvantage of funnelling people at a young age.

But quality vocational education is almost impossible to achieve in the absence of quality jobs in defined occupations. Despite the outcry about a lack of skills in the South African economy, research on industrialising and developing states shows that skills and education generally follow economic development -– it has not happened the other way round.

Where good midlevel jobs are not available, vocational education is often low status. Most people choose academic education, which is weakened by, amongst other factors, weak semi-vocational education. We need to rethink the value of such vocational subjects, in a broader debate about the purpose of senior secondary school.

Another national priority is strengthening South Africa’s curriculum and exam for English as a first additional language, given that other subjects are learnt through English. In 2013, just over 500 000 learners were entered for the matriculation examination, and 454 666 of them wrote English First Additional Language. Recent research from Umalusi suggests serious problems with the curriculum, including that it does not prepare learners well for university study. It found that the English course is broad and shallow, with too many texts but not enough long texts, and that there is little progression across the years, and no time for remediation.

A simple change such as removing the notion of pass or fail from the matric could allow for a more intelligent conversation and more focused education reform in order to substantially improve the performance of the system, and end the futile “pass rate” debate.The Conversation

  • Stephanie Allais is faculty member, Centre for Researching Education and Labour, University of the Witwatersrand
  • This article was originally published on The Conversation


  1. Greg Mahlknecht on

    I don’t get the point? So you’re basically changing the pass mark for all matric subjects to “the student attended the exam”? These guys will probably have to show their senior certificate when job seeking anyway, and in the real world, 50% is deemed as a pass.

    I think the pass rate should be increased to 50%, not taken down to 0%. More accountability should be placed on the education system and parents.

    >We need to rethink the value of such vocational subjects, in a broader debate about the purpose of senior secondary school.

    I agree with this – there have always been, and are still, trade schools, but perhaps we need more, and the stigma about them being “for dummies” taken away.

  2. This is obviously a big talking point for the week – my opinion as someone who went through the pain of 12 years education and a 4 year degree is this:

    The school i went to had a 98-100% pass rate, not a private school but a typical city school. so the problem for me is not the curriculum. the problem is the rural schools which have 0- 50% pass rates. If you unpack why rural schools are battling you will likely come up with the following:

    The learners are not fluent in English as where they live there is little English spoken.
    The teachers in these schools are sub-standard and probably dictate out of a textbook with a lack of broader understanding.
    The discipline in the schools is lacking, facilities are poor and children are malnourished or have poor diets coming from poor homes.
    The parents and siblings of these learners are unlikely to provide any meaningful assistance with homework as they are likely just as clueless as the learner.

    So you see – the government is actually doing nothing to address the ROOT CAUSE of the problem – they think fiddling with pass criteria and curriculum is the solution!
    Teaching people in their mother tongue may help but it will be a struggle to do a degree in English later – I would avoid this. English in school should stop focusing on irrelevant poetry and focus on teaching the language.

  3. The government is actually doing quite a lot for the poorest of the poor schools

    1.”The teachers in these schools are sub-standard and probably dictate out of a textbook with a lack of broader understanding” -> the biggest issue in schools today is discipline and most of the kids don’t learn basic skills in the foundation phase, a learner is not allowed for fail a grade more than once, if they have to promoted to the next grade no matter what in the next school year, You end up with kids in grade 12 who have never passed a grade in their entire life. This should start reflecting in the matric results in the next 3-4 yrs

    2. “The discipline in the schools is lacking, facilities are poor and children are malnourished or have poor diets coming from poor homes” – > The actually get fed by the government through the feeding schemes and they get transported to schools. For some of the kids its the only meal they get in a day.

  4. I think before speaking for rural schools, you should actually go there and stop your guess work. I know of rural schools with a pass rate of 100% and because there isn’t as many distractions in rural areas as in townships and suburbs, matrics attend school 6 days a week and throughout the holidays. There are many volunteers who assist in this regards, so stop talking shti to try and make you government point and talk from facts please. In Soweto where access to English and technology is abundant, many schools are triumphed 10/0 by rural schools because of dedication of teachers and learners, so stop talking tweak.

  5. for the purposes of this discussion i am not talking about the schools that make 100% pass rate – I am specifically referring to those that get 0-50% and bring the national average down. get your head out your ass!

  6. Why do you think the national average is brought down by rural schools, you are looking down on rural schools because you don’t understand them, you assuming because they are rural thus nothing positive will come out that situation, once again speak with facts and stop your idiotic guesswork.

  7. …why not introduce the “been there, done that, got the T-Shirt” as the benchmark??

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