Instead of teaching students to be better at math, South Africa has dropped its passing mark

Give them extra lessons, not lower standards.
Give them extra lessons, not lower standards.
Image: Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko
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South Africa’s Department of Basic Education has lowered the pass rate for mathematics to just 20% in an effort to keep children moving through the country’s struggling school system.

Given the high number of children at risk of being held back because of their math scores, a departmental circular (pdf) published on Dec. 8 by the news website GroundUp decreed, students in grades seven, eight and nine who met all the minimum requirements to pass except in mathematics should be pushed to the next grade if they attain a minimum of 20% in mathematics. (Normally, learners who failed mathematics by scoring below 40% would fail the grade.)

Math is optional in most public high schools, and students can opt for mathematical literacy, “a subject driven by life-related applications of mathematics,” according to (pdf) the department. Another option is technical mathematics, taught at technical schools that opt for artisanal rather than academic training.

The circular went on to say that learners in grade nine who scored below 30% would not be allowed to take mathematics as a subject in grade 10. Defending the policy, the department’s director general said that most students wouldn’t even attempt to do mathematics in their senior years anyhow.

In a Dec. 8 statement, the department of education said it had received numerous complaints from school principals of “extremely poor performance” of students. The lower pass rate was an interim measure until the current policy could be reviewed, the statement said.

Teachers and education activists expressed dismay at the department’s decision, saying it seems a Band-Aid for an ailing education system. They assert that the department’s decision sends a message to thousands of children that they’re just not capable of mastering maths, rather than taking responsibility for poor resources and teaching methods.

“We are setting these children up for failure,” one primary school teacher told GroundUp. “Now we are sending children to the next grade, who didn’t fully grasp the grade they were coming from.”

“The question should be, ‘what is making it difficult for these children to obtain the 40% mark?’ instead of taking a quick solution which might not help in the long term,” said Ntuthuzo Ndzomo of the education activism group Equal Education.

Last year, the Basic Education Department was infuriated by a World Economic Forum report that ranked South Africa 138 out of 140 countries. The year before, South Africa barely ranked above war-torn Yemen and Libya. The 2016/2017 competitiveness report, South Africa’s education and training system was again seen as one that would drain future human capital. While the report was criticized for its methodology and lack of context, it pointed toward a deep failure in South Africa’s education system.