JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (AP) _ Just over half of South African high school students passed graduation exams this year, a figure likely to bring calls for faster change in the country's troubled education system.

The pass rate was down 2.79 percentage points from last year, to 55.25 percent, Education Minister Bengu said in a statement Thursday.

When he became South Africa's first black education minister after white minority rule ended in 1994, Bengu took on a challenge: reforming a system designed to prepare the black majority for second-class status.

``The effects of the changes we are making in the education system will not necessarily be reflected in the results we obtain in just a few months of those changes,'' Bengu said.

In 1994, the last year in which such figures were available, 97 percent of whites passed the exams, compared to 48.5 percent of blacks. The racial breakdown was likely to be similar this year, with some mostly white schools reporting 100 percent pass rates.

The education ministry said it could no longer track exam results by race, which was possible when schools were segregated. Now, though many schools remain all-black, those once all-white have begun to integrate.

Under apartheid, each white student received up to five times as much state funding as each black student. Bengu has proposed reallocating funds and resources _ slowly.

``We want to reach equity within five years,'' said Bengu's spokesman, Lincoln Mali. ``We don't want to destroy the system that has already been built. We want to build on it,''

The past year's budget saw 15 percent of the education funding spent on what the department identified as ``advantaged'' schools shifted to ``disadvantaged'' areas _ generally rural parts of the country where most students were likely to be black.

Lack of materials and trained teachers have hampered attempts to revamp school courses. Mali promised major changes in the classroom in 1996.

This year, most blacks continued to attend the overcrowded, poorly maintained schools that were the legacy of apartheid. Schools in white areas are often too far away or charge tuition that many blacks can't afford.