JOHANNESBURG – South Africans are celebrating news that 76 percent of high school students have passed final exams, an announcement televised live during prime time Monday evening, but the figure disguises that nearly half of those who began school were forced to drop out before exams.
About a million children began the first grade in 2003, but 550,127 full-time students took the exam that determines if they qualify for university, according to a statement by activist organization Equal Education.
Most students are lost in the senior grades, and many are about four years behind the required standard, said Kate Wilkinson, a researcher for independent research organization Africa Check.
The pass rate is useful, "but it only tells us about the prospects of a small group of students who have managed to make it through," she said, Tuesday. "People who are still innumerate and illiterate are pushed forward until they find that they are so far behind that they have no choice but to drop out."
Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga said during her televised announcement Monday evening that better preparation must begin in kindergarten. The government has introduced national exams to assess basic math and language skills in lower grades.
South African exam scores of these tests are among the lowest in the world, according to education researcher Nicholas Spall.
South Africa spent R238 billion, about $20 billion, on education in 2014, according to the treasury department. Yet, increased spending and experimental policies have not been able to overcome the obstacles left by a historically segregated schooling system.
"The amount of improvement is slow and disappointing," said Stephanie Allais, a researcher on education and labor. Educated young people are not guaranteed jobs and success, she said.
Young adults in South Africa face a hostile economy, Allais said. Two-thirds of people below the age of 35 are jobless, according to Statistics South Africa, a government agency.
Still, there is hope from students who see the final exam as a bridge to adulthood.
"This is for my future," said Tamia Playandi, a student who passed.