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Test Scores Drop in South Africa with New Education Plan


Students use computers to study at Elswood Secondary School in Cape Town, in November, 2013.

Students use computers to study at Elswood Secondary School in Cape Town, in November, 2013.


Every year, South African 12th grade students take a test to decide their next steps following the completion of high school. Many students were unhappy with the results of their 2014 exam. The scores were released January 5. Universities use the scores to make admissions decisions.

Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga announced that the Class of 2014 pass rate was 75.8 percent. That represents a drop of almost two and one half points from the pass rate in 2013.

Exam results argued

The meaning of the numbers quickly became a subject of political debate.

President Jacob Zuma sees the results as a sign of progress. A presidential statement said, “South Africa is especially proud of the Class of 2014 as they represent a special category of learners who sat through their exams as the country celebrated 20 years of freedom and democracy."

However, the opposition disagreed. The Pan Africanist Congress party said it thinks the results show serious problems in South Africa's education system.

The P.A.C. also criticized President Zuma’s ruling African National Congress. The Pan Africanists said they do not think enough jobs are available for young adults who have just completed high school.

A party official said students should be able to find jobs after studying for 12 years.

Nombulelo Nyathela is a spokeswoman for the advocacy group Equal Education. She said the test issue is more complex than the way either political side sees it.

Education struggles

Ms. Nyathela said the numbers are only part of the story of education in South Africa. There is also a problem with students who leave school before grade 12. About half of the students who enter grade 2 drop out of, or leave, school before grade 12.

"We need to be careful about using the matric pass rate as the only indicator of either an improvement or … a decline in the education system.”

It has been 20 years since the end of the apartheid system of white minority rule and enforced racial separation in South Africa. The government is trying to give all its citizens an equal education. The country established a new education program in 2012.

Students who took the 2014 test were the first to study under the program. It began when they were in grade 10. The program is designed to guide teachers on better teaching. For example, the teachers now ask more ‘high-order’ questions. These are questions that make the students think carefully about what they are learning. The new exams are based on this higher quality of teaching.

Angie Motshekga said students who do not pass the exam would have a chance to take it again. She said some students may need extra help after only two years of the new learning program.

Improvements still needed

Nombulelo Nyathela said that South Africa should spend more money on improving education. She said she thinks a lack of resources is the root of the systemic problems in basic education.

“So we definitely need schools with laboratories, schools with libraries, schools with adequate-sized classrooms, schools with fences where learners feel secure, schools with adequate teachers, so that, you know, teachers are not teaching classes of over 100 learners.”

I’m Caty Weaver.

Anita Powell reported this story for VOA from Johannesburg, South Africa. Jill Robbins wrote it for Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.

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Words in This Story

advocacy - n. the act or process of supporting a cause or proposal

indicator - n. a sign that shows the condition or existence of something

decline - n. the process of becoming worse in condition or quality

apartheid - n. a former social system in South Africa in which black people and people from other racial groups did not have the same political and economic rights as white people and were forced to live separately from white people

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