STANDARDS: Matric candidates found the going tough in the 2015 exams, as Umalusi Council chairman John Volmink believes examiners set papers that reflect what the new curriculum demands. Picture: THE HERALD
STANDARDS: Matric candidates found the going tough in the 2015 exams, as Umalusi Council chairman John Volmink believes examiners set papers that reflect what the new curriculum demands. Picture: THE HERALD

THE cat is already out of the bag: 2015’s matric pass rate — which will be announced this evening — will be lower than before, quality assurance body Umalusi has warned.

This is a turn-up for the books. The matric pass rate has been on an upward trend for all but one of the past 15 years, reaching a high of 78.2% in 2013 and dropping slightly in 2014 by 2.4 percentage points. It has become normal for the government to trumpet huge successes when it comes to the matric pass rate, inappropriately used to signify great improvements in a system in which 50% of pupils drop out before they reach Grade 12.

It is also unusual because matric is a "norm-referenced test" that compares test-takers to each other first and foremost rather than to a set of competencies. This means that the results rank pupils on a curve, which is broadly similar from year to year. The assumption underlying this practice is that each year’s cohort resembles the last in intelligence and capability.

So if results fall outside of the typical curve, the general practice is to standardise or adjust them.

In the past, Umalusi has defended the steady rise in the pass rate on the grounds that a progressive curve is appropriate for a society in transition. In other words, Umalusi tended to assume that the pass rate should rise steadily.

But that assumption appears to have been tossed out the window this time in the context of a poor set of results and circumstances weighing the pass rate down.

When the results are announced today, they will already have been adjusted to better suit the curve. But there are limits to how much adjustment can be made. Each individual can be adjusted upwards by only 10% of their original mark. So a student who scores 50% can receive a maximum of an extra 5%.

Even with these adjustments — Umalusi says results for 30 out of 59 subjects have been adjusted upwards — expectations are strong that the final rate will nonetheless drop significantly. (In 2014, only 13 subjects were adjusted upwards and 10 adjusted downwards.)

So, what went wrong for the class of 2015?

Chairman of the Umalusi Council John Volmink has advanced a number of factors that are believed to have pushed the pass rate down. Among these are that more people wrote matric including a substantial number of people who failed Grade 11 but were "progressed" to Grade 12; better marking due to training and protocols put in place; and greater vigilance when it comes to cheating.

Top of the list of causes, though, said Prof Volmink, was simply that 2015’s papers were harder. Although this was not picked up by external moderators, Prof Volmink speculated that with the introduction of the new curriculum into Grade 12 in 2014, examiners had anticipated a disaster, so were cautious in the exams they set. With a second year of matrics on the new curriculum, the papers were more reflective of what the curriculum demanded.

"I think examiners are now getting it right. It could be that this is the right level at which teachers should be teaching. In doing so, we may have gone overboard, but there is no harm done in teaching to this level," he said.

While the larger cohort and the high number of "progressed" pupils — about 66,000 — could account for some of the drop, statistically this could not be more than 3.5%, he said.

A thorough regression analysis would need to be done to determine the exact weighting of each of the causes to the overall results, said Prof Volmink.

In the interim, a new norm has been set with a curve that for the first time in years may raise standards, even though it falls below what has been previously touted as success.