Why are Matrics getting so many distinctions?
School marks achieved today by learners appear to be much higher than in their parents’ time. And the students seem to be under much more pressure.
The media is jammed packed with eye-opening matric results – three distinctions are often the norm – but it is not unusual to see learners attaining up to 11 distinctions and average marks by top achievers of over 90 per cent. In fact, in both National Senior Certificate and Independent Examination Board, some matriculants are even achieving up to 100 per cent, particularly in science and mathematics. Are they smarter than their parents and grandparents or are they simply putting in much more work? The SA Jewish Report questions principals and educationists about this.
Marc Falconer, principal of Herzlia High School in Cape Town, termed the matric exams “a bankrupt measure of an educational output”. He insists that the increased marks did not mean more employment; better GDP; more people equipped to start businesses or to think creatively or problem solve, or even to do better in tertiary study? “Matric testing seems to be a summative assessment for a world that doesn’t actually require whatever skills the matric exams do elicit,” he says.
He confirms there was “grade inflation” and that there were far more distinctions achieved than in bygone years.
He cites political narrative as a dominant reason. “The government is invested in showing that there is an ongoing improvement in matric pass rates. Educational commentators have made the point that Umalusi, the Council for Quality Assurance in Further Education and Training, [I21] have inflated marks, for various reasons, one of which may be to improve the perception of government’s performance in this key area. This is in spite of the fact that South Africa, on international benchmarking scales such as Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), is one of the worst performing countries in the world in literacy, maths and science.”
The country now has a school-based assessment mark, worth 25 percent of the final matric mark which allowed for a different engagement with subject matter and better individual responses and, consequently, better marks.
“Exam assessment has also changed (possibly this is more true for the IEB assessment than in the State assessment).” Assessing exams was a test for various levels of learning and engagement. “There is also more specialised teaching (and when they can be afforded, extra specific teaching, to ‘crack’ the exams. This is not to do with better learning, but rather a way of ‘working the system’.
“But in spite of the better matric marks, the stats for performance at university have dropped over the last years. The latest stats are that five years ago the dropout rate at university study was 59 per cent. The latest figure is 68 per cent even though the school pass and distinction rates have increased.
“Universities are increasingly using the national benchmarking tests to offer candidates a place at university and for international universities thinking skills tests or the SATs are used,” Falconer said.
Elliot Wolf, former principal of King David High School Linksfield, said the subject matter was more demanding and students wanted higher marks to enable them to gain admission to universities, especially in the faculty of medicine.
He adds that there are great changes in the marking standards, a situation that brought South African schools in line with other countries like Israel and the United States. This fact was clearly illustrated in earlier years when many families emigrated from South Africa and the students in these families entered overseas universities and colleges. Many of them in a short time were listed on the Deans’ Honour lists, and this proved that our marking standards in the past were perhaps a little too stringent.
As a specialist in the humanities, Wolf said in previous years it was unheard of to obtain full marks for an English essay. “But today, the students are no longer required to write a creative essay under exam conditions, and have the advantage of help from knowledgeable outside sources. The final work is submitted to the teacher for recommendations and improvements and finally is assessed as a true indication of the students’ ability to express themselves in English. So, today, a really good essay could get full marks even though it is not a true reflection of the student’s efforts and literacy.”
Advanced programme subjects had been introduced in English and mathematics for students who were gifted in these subjects.
“Life orientation, a compulsory subject, is not an examination subject. The marks are based on the submission of essays involving research and other project work. Most of the better students gain an additional distinction in this subject.”
Previously most students were offered only six subjects for the matriculation exam, occasionally some taking seven. “Today it is not unusual for students to take eight, nine or 10 subjects. This situation obviously lends itself to the multi-distinction candidates we read about every year when the matric results are released.”
He emphasised that that his comments were “simply my opinions to explain the plethora of distinction candidates in today’s school system.
“May I offer a word of comfort to my former students and all the parents of today’s matriculants. Do not be embarrassed that your results were not as remarkable as those of your children. Remember that you were just as intelligent, but were simply the products of a different, more conservative school system,” Wolf said.
Denese Bloch, principal of Yeshiva College Boys’ and Girls’ High Schools, confirmed that over several years “we have seen a great increase in the number of distinctions attained by learners in their final matric results.
“I am sure that there are a number of reasons for this. We are living in a much more competitive environment. Under the heinous, immoral and iniquitous apartheid system, a white skin and average marks were enough to guarantee one a place in university.
“No matter how good a learner’s marks were, if he were classified as black, coloured or Indian, he would not be admitted into most of the universities in the country. Today learners are competing against a much larger group and therefore have to achieve much better results in order to secure a place at university.”
This meant that learners set their goals much higher in previous years, Bloch said.
Rabbi Steven Krawitz, principal of Hirsch Lyons Boys’ and Girls’ High Schools, felt the increased number of distinctions obtained by learners was that there was more competition to enrol in universities today and to be accepted for prestigious courses, especially actuarial science, medicine and engineering.
This put learners and parents under pressure to generate better results.
“The syllabus has changed to include more – and students are going for extra lessons to be coached to do well in exams. The marking is not more lenient.”
Schools were preparing students for their final examinations – to the best of their ability – and the learners were working harder than they had decades ago.
“This is not only for themselves, but to bring honour to their school.”
Krawitz said syllabuses had changed to include more up-to-date material, especially for IEB.
“Skills for tertiary education have become a big component.”
He did not believe there was a drop in standards, but there was extra pressure on teachers and learners in the present system.
Yochanan’s gamble: the controversial move that saved Judaism
Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, known as the father of rabbinic Judaism, saved Judaism from complete and utter destruction during the Roman Siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE. However, his methods weren’t without controversy. He was crafty, practical, and pragmatic, and history has questioned his behaviour ever since.
Limmud@Home on 22 August 2021 featured Marc Katz, the author and rabbi at Temple Ner Tamid in New Jersey, United States, who discussed Ben Zakkai’s controversial gamble that saved Judaism, and the lessons that can be learned from it.
The zealots, a group of religious fanatics in Jerusalem, wanted to fight the Romans. When the sages refused to engage in battle, the zealots burned wheat, deliberately causing starvation to make the people desperate and have no other option but to fight.
“Show me a method so that I will be able to leave the city, and it’s possible that through this, there will be some small salvation,” Ben Zakkai told Abba Sikkara, the leader of the zealots.
Heeding Sikkara’s advice, Ben Zakkai pretended to be dead. In a coffin, he could possibly travel outside the city to seek a solution with the Romans.
Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua successfully carried Ben Zakkai past the guards, who were of the faction of the zealots, by telling them that they were burying the coffin outside the city.
When Ben Zakkai reached the Roman camp, he spoke to Roman leader Vespasian. Ben Zakkai helped Vespasian cure his swollen feet. Vespasian offered something in return, and Ben Zakkai asked for certain Jewish lives to be spared and doctors to heal Rabbi Tzadok.
Why didn’t he ask the Romans to spare Jerusalem? He maintained that Vespasian might not do that much for him, and there wouldn’t be even this small amount of salvation. Therefore, he made only a modest request in the hope that he would receive at least that much.
Katz said several lessons could be learned from this story.
He drew a comparison to US President Abraham Lincoln at the time of the American Civil War in the 1860s, who freed slaves.
“One of the things he’s famous for is that he surrounded himself with people who disagreed with him in order to build the best coalition and understand that he didn’t have all the right views in a time of discord,” said Katz. “So, many of his secretaries – like his treasury secretary, his war secretary – were people who were actually his political rivals but he brought them in because it was really important for him to listen to them. It was pragmatic because he knew the social capital he was going to gain from it. It was also hopeful because he wasn’t so caught in his ways that he couldn’t hear them out or heed their warnings. That is exactly what Ben Zakkai is doing. Not only is he creating this plot of land where he is going to save Judaism, but he is the kind of guy who tends to think about politics in the way he governs.”
Another lesson is to try to seek compromises, just like Ben Zakkai did with Sikkara.
A further lesson is to have love and kindness, not regret and hatred. Katz discussed what happened when Ben Zakkai was leaving Jerusalem with Yehoshua, and they witnessed the destruction of the Temple. “Don’t be bitter, my son, for we have another form of atonement which is as great, and this is [an] act of love and kindness [gemilut hasadim],” Ben Zakkai told Yehoshua.
An additional lesson is not to be afraid of people. If they kill you, you won’t be dead for eternity as there is life after death. But the supreme king of kings, the Holy One, Blessed be He, lives and endures forever and all-time, and if he kills you, you are dead for eternity.
“Yochanan doesn’t know if he is going to heaven or hell,” said Katz. “I truly believe that’s because he doesn’t know whether he made the right call or not – he doesn’t know if the pragmatic decision he made was better than going for broke and asking for Jerusalem to be saved.”
The dispersal of the Bukharian Jews
The story of the Bukharian Jews, a community with deep roots in Central Asia, is sadly coming to an end, but the community’s legacy lives on in the United States and Israel, where most of the remaining Bukharian Jews now live.
Uzbekistan-born Bukharian Jew, Ruben Shimonov, told of this little known Jewish group which emanates mostly from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan, countries in the heart of the Asian continent.
Speaking to a virtual audience via Zoom at Limmud@Home last Sunday, 22 August, Shimonov said the different layers of culture, cuisine, music, and language in the region were an amalgamation of all the different cultures of Central Asia, and were also reflected in the small but deeply-rooted community of Bukharian Jews.
The Bukharian Jewish story begins with the Babylonian conquest of the ancient land of Israel, Judea, and subsequent exile of Jews east of the land of Israel to other regions of the Babylonian Empire, namely present-day Iraq and Iran.
The Babylonian Empire was conquered by the Achaemenid Empire in 539 BC. “Under the Achaemenid Empire, the king was a more benevolent king and he allowed Jews to return to rebuild Jerusalem and the Beit HaMikdash,” said Shimonov. “But many Jews stayed as they now felt safe and secure under this new reign and moved even farther east of this new large Achaemenid Empire. This, folks, was Central Asia.”
Shimonov believes that the Bukharian Jews were more integrated with the local non-Jewish communities in Central Asia than, for example, the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe.
“Even though Bukharian Jews for a large part of their history lived in quarters [maḥalla], there was constant interaction with the dominant societies amongst which they lived,” said Shimonov. “For example, the shashmaqam musical tradition is influenced by Sufi Islam, but many Bukharian Jews became the gatekeepers of this tradition.”
According to Shimonov, there are 250 000 Bukharian Jews in the world. Most of them now live in Israel or the United States, primarily in the New York City borough of Queens.
“In Uzbekistan, there are fewer than a thousand Bukharian Jews left – mainly elderly folk who are staying behind because it’s harder for them to emigrate,” said Shimonov. “Jews in Uzbekistan are highly protected; their safety is preserved. And Jews do go and visit Central Asia, including Uzbekistan, where there is one kosher restaurant and a couple of synagogues. But our story is quickly coming to an end in our place of origin.”
In the Tajikistan city of Khujand, where Bukharian Jews once enjoyed a rich communal life, the last remaining Jew, Jura Abaev, died in January this year. Zablon Simintov, a carpet trader who is the last remaining Jew in Afghanistan, is reportedly safe as the country comes under the control of the Taliban.
Shimonov, who emigrated from Uzbekistan three years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, said the main reason for the low numbers today was the struggle of the Bukharian Jews living in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan under the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
“State-sanctioned antisemitism and dispossession or marginalisation of Jews was part of that story even though there were more ups than downs. And then, the subsequent new instability of the newly formed independent republics – whenever new countries are formed after the colonial past there is more often than not a lot of political, social, and economic instability,” he said.
“As a democratic minority, we felt that even more. So, the urgency to leave was clear and present. In the decade of the late eighties to mid-nineties, we went from having the majority of our community living in this place where we had lived for centuries to the majority of our community living in a new diaspora. In Uzbekistan, the real impetus to leave was more about everything I mentioned than antisemitism coming from our Muslim neighbours.”
“Our Muslim neighbours were our friends, and we baked bread with them,” Shimonov said. “This is different to Jews coming from the Arab world, where Arab nationalism and Zionism came to a head in a way that the Jews were sadly caught in the crossfire.”
In contemporary times, Uzbekistan-born billionaire Lev Avnerovich Leviev and Israeli Dorrit Moussaieff are two of the Bukharian Jews who have made an impact. Known as the “king of diamonds”, Leviev annually sent large quantities of Passover food to Chabad emissaries in the Commonwealth of Independent States to distribute to Jews in these communities. Moussaieff, the former First Lady of Iceland, promoted Icelandic culture and artistic productions in the international arena.
Shabbat Around The World beams out from Jozi
More than 75 devices around the globe logged in to Beit Luria’s World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ) Shabbat Around the World programme on Friday, 15 January.
Whether it was breakfast time in California, tea time in Europe, or time to break challah in Johannesburg, participants logged in to take part in Beit Luria’s Kabbalat Shabbat service.
Among those participating were Rabbi Sergio Bergman, the president of the WUPJ; chairperson Carole Sterling; and Rabbi Nathan Alfred, the head of international relations. Singers Tulla Eckhart and Brian Joffe performed songs from a global array of artists, along with Toto’s Africa to add a little local flair to the service. After kiddish was said and bread was broken, Rabbi Bergman thanked Beit Luria for hosting the WUPJ. The shul looks forward to more collaborations with its global friends in the future.
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