Zimbabwe’s 2015 O’Level STEM performance & how it informs the STEM strategy

   

The Zimbabwean Ministry of Higher and Tertiary Education has made it clear that Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects have strategic economic importance and are a priority. It is so much a priority that students taking up STEM subjects at A Level have been offered free education by the government.

With this mind we looked the just released November 2015 ZIMSEC O’Level results to get a clear picture of what the performance in STEM was by school candidates (we excluded private candidates from the data). For the purpose of this article, we have used the “sciences” categorization for STEM that ZIMSEC itself uses, that is the subjects; Mathematics, Biology, Integrated Science, Physical Science, Physics, Chemistry, Human and Social Biology and Geography.

Here’s a table showing how many candidates sat for a subject, how many of them got a grade C or better and what percentage pass rate that represents therefore. STEM subjects are highlighted in orange.

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Subject NameTotal CandidatesC or Better Results% Pass Rate
Mathematics1142362989126%
Integrated Science772654914532%
Biology206341105454%
Physical Science7261519772%
Computers3978319480%
Physics 5191445086%
Chemistry5175350058%
Human and Social Biology53218435%
Geography1307595088539%
English Language1648674482927%
Shona1185834808141%
History1145515557949%
Commerce930293598139%
Agriculture468612756059%
Principles of Accounts322951823357%
Religious Studies 317191864459%
Ndebele229701325158%
Fashion and Fabrics216761144053%
Literature12097607756%
Building9038489954%
Food and Nutrition4710357876%
Woodwork3772169545%
Statistics39636291%
Music26218269%

The data shows a couple of interesting things:

  • At 26%, Mathematics has one of the lowest pass rates in the country with only 29,891 passing it of the total 114,236 that sat for the exam.
  • Only a few students took up some key STEM subjects such as Physics and Chemistry. For example, only 5,191 of the more than 160,000 students that sat for the examinations in 2015, wrote the physics exam. In contrast, 118,000 students sat for the History exam.
  • The same trend is noticeable in general for all STEM subjects (except Mathematics and Geography). In general, more students sit for art and commercial subjects like History, Religious Studies, Literature, Accounts and  Commerce than do STEM subjects.
  • These huge disparities mean that even though the physics and chemistry pass rates seem higher – 86% and 58% respectively – than the English Language pass rate of just 27%, the comparison doesn’t tell the full story. It’s likely that the few people that take up Physics and Chemistry, are star students who are generally expected to pass the subjects. On the other hand, every student, whether they are good at it or not, are required to sit for the English exam.
  • The STEM subject that had the most student sitting is Geography, with a total of 130,759 students and a pass rate of 39%.
  • The Computer Science subject was only taken by 3,978 students the whole country. About 2% of all students that sat for exams

The results provide an informed look at where more effort is needed in ensuring that Zimbabwe produces more STEM graduates at college level. The data shows that some intervention to increase the interest or just the number of people that take up STEM careers also needs to happen early in secondary education, around form 3. Essentially, while providing free education to STEM students at A’ Level is a noble thing to do, by that time, a lot of students have lost interest in STEM, believe it’s too difficult and just believe they are better off doing arts, humanities and commercial subjects.

Interventions at the A’Level phase, or tertiary education stage, are already targeting less than 10% of the students that wrote the O’ level exams. Hopefully however, making STEM education free at A’ Level, may have the effect of encouraging more students to take up STEM seriously early in secondary school, with the hope benefiting from free education in later years.

That aside, it’s sad to see the usual politics and power struggles coming to disrupt a great initiative. Instead of politicians fighting about whose mandate promoting STEM is, or using it to frustrate each other, they should be looking at such data and collaboratively planning across ministries to prepare Zimbabwe for the global knowledge economy we are already late to participating in.


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