JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — They were the first "born free" generation, children whose births in 1994 marked the year that South Africa elected Nelson Mandela's government in its first truly democratic election.

So when the results of their high school graduation exams were announced Thursday, it was another opportunity for the country to assess how far it had come in creating a new and more equitable society. The answer: Not nearly as far as many would like.

Of the 1.1 million children who were born in 1994 and later entered first grade, fewer than half even made it far enough to take the graduation exam. Of those who did, the percentage who passed rose to 73.9 percent, up from 70.2 percent in 2012. But some education experts despaired even of those results, given the relatively low bar set for passage.

Students in South Africa are offered a choice of dozens of tests in subjects as varied as each of the 11 national languages, a plethora of foreign languages, math (and a separate exam in "math literacy"), history, accounting, various sciences, visual art, dance, and so on. Students must pass six to earn their diploma, called a National Senior Certificate.

To pass, they need only to receive scores of 40 percent on three exams and 30 percent on three others.

"I find it hard to get excited over . results," tweeted the editor of South Africa's Financial Mail magazine, Barney Mthombothi. "As long as pass mark is 30 percent . we're fooling nobody but ourselves."

As South Africa grapples with enduring socio-economic inequality and soaring youth unemployment, 18 years after Mandela's African National Congress took power, the education system remains stubbornly difficult to change.

Among the most famous of Nelson Mandela's many quotations is: "Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world." But South Africa has struggled to shake off the legacy of the "bantu education" system under apartheid, which systematically denied blacks the right to the same educational opportunities offered to whites.

But the glaring problems underlying the statistics were glossed over in comments from the ruling party and government officials Thursday as they lavished praise on the "born free" generation's performance.

President Jacob Zuma called the results "outstanding." A statement from the ruling African National Congress said the performance of the class of 2012 "augurs well for our national drive to get South Africans and young people in particular to achieve educational success."

The weakness of South Africa's education system was dramatically exposed in December when the government released the results of a national assessment of 7 million students that showed with just over three years of schooling remaining, Grade 9 students received an average mark of 13 percent for mathematics.

The World Economic Forum said last year that South Africa ranked 132nd of 144 countries for its primary school education, and 143rd in math and science.