This paper analyzes the large racial differences in progress through secondary school in South Africa. Using recently collected longitudinal data we find that grade advancement is strongly associated with scores on a baseline literacy and numeracy test. In grades 8–11 the effect of these scores on grade progression is much stronger for white and coloured students than for African students, while there is no racial difference in the impact of the scores on passing the nationally standardized grade 12 matriculation exam. We develop a stochastic model of grade repetition that generates predictions consistent with these results. The model predicts that a larger stochastic component in the link between learning and measured performance will generate higher enrollment, higher failure rates, and a weaker link between ability and grade progression. The results suggest that grade progression in African schools is poorly linked to actual ability and learning. The results point to the importance of considering the stochastic component of grade repetition in analyzing school systems with high failure rates.