*are*we doing in mathematics?

The class of 2023 surpassed expectations in terms of mathematics attainment. The pass rate in mathematics increased by +8.5 percentage points from 55% passing in 2022 to 63.5% passing in 2023.

Yes, yes. I know that “pass” is a somewhat ridiculous measure. I have long advocated for scrapping the pass mark altogether. Matriculants should strive to get the best possible result they can.

All a National Senior Certificate offers is a place in the queue for higher education or for the world of work. In both queues a pass is not enough and your place in the queue is determined by your actual marks/grades.

The Class of 2023 attained a +8.5 percentage point increase at the 30% pass level. Whoop-de-do.

The good news is that the Department of Basic Education agrees that monitoring *quality passes* is what matters most. It has now included targets (and related reporting) at both the 50% and 60% levels for mathematics and physical sciences (see the 2019-2024 Medium Term Strategic Framework).

#### What about quality passes in mathematics?

The National Development Plan set an ambitious target of 35,000 learners attaining more than 50% in mathematics by 2025. The Class of 2023 exceeded this target with 41,273 achieving this. Let’s call a pass at 50% an **ordinary pass,** shall we?

The red line is the National Development Plan target of 35,000 learners. The black line shows the number of learners each year who have obtained a quality pass in mathematics (>60%).

The year 2023 was indeed one to celebrate. South Africa exceeded the National Development Plan target of 35,000 quality passes in mathematics. Halala!

**What’s going on with maths literacy?**

We can’t tell our South African Grade 12 maths story without mentioning maths literacy. There is a tension between participation in mathematics and attaining quality mathematics passes: Does it make sense for all matric learners to take mathematics? No.

Does it make sense for learners who could obtain a quality pass in mathematics not to take it, and rather go for a distinction in maths literacy? No.

So what is a reasonable proportion of matric pupils taking mathematics? The jury is out on this one, and it seems we have not yet established national maths participation targets.

Obviously mathematics is a gateway subject into science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem). But mathematics also offers a far better education than mathematics literacy.

Mathematics also offers a stronger grounding for social science and the humanities. Ask any humanities post-grad student who is considering a research study (or their supervisor). They will tell you that it is very frustrating to only be able to work with qualitative data. Both their career trajectory and their ability to influence policy and present hard evidence is seriously curtailed when they have to omit all numbers.

**What proportion of our matrics should take mathematics?**

The national data on participation in mathematics is scary.

We have seen a steady decline in matric pupils taking mathematics. In the Class of 2023 only 32% wrote mathematics. This means that 66% of Grade 12s take *maths literacy* and 2% take *technical mathematics*. Why is this the case? How do we have only one in three matric candidates taking mathematics?

Of course, mathematics is much harder than maths literacy. Maths literacy does not equip you with any ability to use and report on data to reason in abstract mathematical ways. It offers no algebra, no statistics, no financial mathematics and no abstract reasoning.

Why are we allowing matrics to get maths literacy distinctions, when we desperately need more candidates for Stem careers, and more numerate and mathematical citizens?

It is not realistic to have all matrics taking mathematics. But I am deeply concerned about the matrics who take mathematics literacy as they are chasing a distinction.

Firstly, I think that schools discourage students from taking mathematics for fear of this affecting their school pass rates, and bachelors pass rates.

Schools are measured by their pass rates. The Department of Basic Education now includes an inclusive basket of indicators, and participation in mathematics is one of these indicators. But our media is not yet focusing on this, and remains fixated with pass rates.

I understand that having smaller classes for mathematics is a benefit, and that those smaller classes may be more likely to attain quality passes. We certainly don’t need more matrics failing mathematics. The declines in mathematics participation must be halted.

Secondly, the university APS systems also discourage mathematics participation.

Most universities apply the Admission Point Score formula of “mathematics mark + 20 = maths literacy mark”.** **The University of Cape Town **(**UCT) is the worst. As the country’s top-ranked university, it is an aspirational destination for our top matrics. Yet UCT weights mathematics literacy as equal to mathematics marks in its admission to humanities and non-Stem programmes.

Look at UCT’s two examples of how to calculate the Faculty Points Score in the humanities:

UCT’s two examples clearly encourage a maths literacy distinction. In example 1, the maths literacy mark is a distinction (83%), and this gives your Faculty Points Score a boost.

In example 2 we see that taking mathematics, and risking getting less than 40%, gives you a big fat zero. Weighting mathematics literacy at the same level as mathematics is crazy. UCT: What are you doing? Please, please explain this to us.

Turning to all our universities, I actually think that our overarching Admission Point Score formula should be: **mathematics mark + 30 = maths literacy mark**.

I think that a distinction in maths literacy (>80%), means a matric pupil might get an ordinary pass (>50%) in mathematics. In the Class of 2023, there were 9,142 distinctions in maths literacy. If those matrics persevered with mathematics, getting >50%, we would have more than 50,000 matriculants with an ordinary pass in mathematics.

#### So, just cut to the chase, what is our maths story?

South Africa’s output of quality passes (>60%) in mathematics has been improving. In 2023 we exceeded the National Development Plan target of 35,000 candidates, with 41,237 candidates getting quality maths passes. This is great news.

On the downside, we have fewer and fewer candidates taking mathematics, with two in three candidates opting for maths literacy. This is appalling. Both schools and universities should not encourage matric candidates to take mathematics literacy in order to game the admissions criteria and the schools pass rates.

#### What should we do? I have four concrete suggestions for various policy actors:

- Our media must report on bachelors’ level pass rates, as well as both participation and pass rates in mathematics and physical sciences. Media should use the Department of Basic Education’s inclusive basket and stop fixating on the pass rate headlines.
- Our universities must increase the Academic Point Score formula to: mathematics mark + 30 = maths literacy mark.
- UCT must change its Humanities Faculty Points Score, which perversely discourages mathematics participation.
- Umalusi (the Council for Quality Assurance in General and Further Education and Training, with the Department of Basic Education) must cap mathematics literacy marks at 75%.

What about parents? If you think your child can get a maths literacy distinction (or even over 70%), encourage them to take mathematics.

It’s a better education for your child, better for our economy and better for active citizenry. **DM**

*Nicky Roberts is an extraordinary Associate Professor in the Department of Curriculum Studies at the University of Stellenbosch, and director of Kelello Consulting. She has a PhD in mathematics education (Wits), a masters in International Perspectives in Mathematics Education (Cambridge) and a post-doc at the University of Johannesburg. She writes in her personal capacity.*