How South Africa’s matric dropout rate hides the real pass rate

More matric students dropped out before they could register for their exams in 2019 than ever before, Department of Basic Education statistics reveal.

Of the 616,754 full-time public school students who entered matric at the start of 2019, only 504,303 actually wrote the exams.

The number of matrics who drop out before sitting their exams has been increasing steadily since 2015.

In 2015, there were 23,389 matrics who dropped out before sitting their exams – a dropout rate of 3.5%. By 2019, this number had increased to 112,451 – a dropout rate of over 18%.

Policy of progression

One possible reason for the increased dropout rate is the introduction of a new policy on progression in 2013. Under this policy, students are not allowed to be held back more than once between grade 10 and grade 12.

In other words, it may not take a student longer than four years to complete grades 10 through matric. They may fail any grade once and be held back, but not twice.

Of the 125,691 students who were progressed to matric in 2019, only 34,498 wrote exams. Of those who wrote, only 68% passed their exams.

The department has said in the past that the rationale behind the policy on progression is to minimise the high dropout rate and maximise school retention.

This year, Basic Education director-general Hubert Mathanzima Mweli said that the problem is not the dropout rate.

The real problem, he said, is the failure and repetition rate – the number of students who repeat a grade several times.

Mweli said part of the problem is that funding is only given for students who are of school-going age.

When there are students who are over 20 years old in matric, this puts undue financial pressure on provincial education departments.

However, he also didn’t begrudge those students who remain in the system until deep into their twenties.

“If people can stay in the system up to age 26, it means they are serious. They really want to meet the requirements of the National Senior Certificate,” said Mweli.

“Therefore the analysis must not be just horizontal. It must be much more in-depth.”

Mweli added that 60.4% of South Africa’s young people finish their schooling within 12 years.

Inflating the pass rate

Aside from the policy on progression, the government has implemented several strategies to artificially inflate South Africa’s matric pass rate over the years.

This is done by lowering the pass mark for certain subjects, eliminating higher grade subjects, and abolishing the “designated subject list” for entry into degree studies.

The pass rate can also be inflated by adjusting scores after the exams have been marked or through making matric exams easier.

Mweli said that such standardisation is an international best practice to ensure that marks are adjusted when exams are either too easy or too difficult.

Another effective tool to increase the pass rate is to ensure that matrics who are unlikely to pass the exams do not register for them.

Dropouts

The graphs below show the number of dropouts and dropout rates from 2010 to 2019.

The Grade 12 dropout rate is calculated by subtracting the number of matrics who wrote exams from the number of enrolments.


Matric dropout figures: 2010–2019

Graph of matric dropout figures 2010-2019


Matric dropout rates: 2010–2019

Graph of matric dropout rate 2010-2019


Real matric pass rate: 2010–2019

Graph of Matric cohort pass rates 2010-2019

Now read: Matric maths – Public vs Private schools

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How South Africa’s matric dropout rate hides the real pass rate