South Africa’s maths, science scores still lag behind

Read time 5min 10sec

When it comes to mathematics and science scores, South Africa has failed to make significant gains, with the rate of improvement moving at a snail’s pace.

This is according to results contained in the “2019 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study” (TIMSS), which assesses the maths and science knowledge of fourth and eighth grade learners around the world. In SA, the assessment is conducted among grade five and grade nine learners in public and independent schools.

The TIMSS survey was released yesterday by Department of Basic Education (DBE) minister Angie Motshekga and the Human Sciences Research Council.

It is commonly known that SA’s maths and science scores, two critical subjects for the advancement of the country's ICT sector, have been on the backburner for quite some time now, with education analysts often pointing to the small percentage of overall learners who pass these subjects.

Data for grade five shows that out of the 64 countries and regional entities that participated in TIMSS, SA continues to be one of the lower performing countries in both maths and science scores, achieving scores of 374 and 324, respectively.

In terms of ability, 16% of grade five maths and science learners scored higher than the 475 (intermediate benchmark), meaning they are able to apply knowledge to solve problems.

“Just over one-third (37%) of South African learners demonstrated they had acquired basic mathematical knowledge and 28% had acquired basic science knowledge. By way of contrast, this means 63% of learners had not acquired basic mathematical knowledge and 72% had not acquired basic science knowledge,” according to the survey.

Turning to achievement trends, the study shows the difference of average maths scores of 376 in TIMSS 2015 and 374 in TIMSS in 2019 is not statistically significant, meaning there was no change in the achievement performance over these two periods.

“From the TIMSS data, we were unable to explain why achievement scores did not increase. The grade five results are particularly perplexing as the TIMSS mathematics and science achievements increased at grade nine.”

“It is true that at the grade five level, the mathematics achievement in TIMSS 2015 and 2019 remains the same despite a demonstrable improvement at the secondary level,” acknowledges Motshekga. “We know that our work is cut out [for us] from now and into the future to get the early grade learning scores in mathematics on par with our peers, if not better.”

The achievement gap between learners attending fee-paying and no­fee schools is 109 points for mathematics and 150 points for science.

The mathematics and science achievement scores are significantly higher for girls than for boys.

“These significant differences are also apparent in fee-paying and no­fee schools for mathematics and in no­fee schools for science. Schools (and policy) must pay additional attention to the learning patterns of boys and the support that must be provided to them,” the study reveals.

Turning to grade nine, the TIMSS also expressed concern at the rate of improvements in mathematics and science for the grade’s learners.

For grade nine, the South African TIMSS 2019 mathematics score of 389 and the science score of 370 is an increase of 17 points for mathematics and 12 points for science from the previous TIMSS 2015.

“While the improvement in educational achievement is recognised, the concern is that the rate of improvement is decreasing. The improvement rate for mathematics and science achievement for the 2003 to 2011 period was 7.4 points and 7.1 points per year respectively (67 points for mathematics and 64 points for science over this period).

“However, for the 2011 to 2019 period these figures fall to 4.6 points and 4.8 points per year (an improvement of 37 points for mathematics and 38 points for science over this period),” reveals the study.

TIMMS noted the changing South African economy has a higher demand for high-skilled tertiary education graduates, especially in science, engineering and technology subjects.

“The increased proportion of grade nine learners demonstrating improved abilities in mathematics and science could increase the mathematics and science pipeline to the exit level matriculation examination, and further into tertiary studies.

“It is noteworthy that 13% of mathematics learners and 15% of science learners reached the intermediate benchmark levels,” TIMMS revealed.

Motshekga states: “Our set target for mathematics and science achievement is a score of 420 by 2023, at the grade nine level. To meet these targets will require additional effort from all basic education role players to accelerate the pace of TIMSS improvement. It is in our best interest, and our future generations to do so.”

The International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement developed TIMSS to allow participating nations to monitor their educational achievements, and how it changed over time, as well as compare learners’ educational achievement across borders in the key subjects of mathematics and science.

The study, conducted every four years, was first administered in SA in 1995 and has continued to be administered in 1999, 2003, 2011, 2015 and 2019.

For the latest TIMSS sample, 519 schools participated, with 20 829 learners, 543 mathematics and 537 science teachers, and 519 school principals completing the TIMSS instruments.

The grade five test administration was conducted in 291 schools with 11 891 learners in October 2018. The grade nine data collection took place in September 2019. The number of schools in Gauteng and the Western Cape were boosted from 30 to 150, to provide more robust estimates.

“While we have recorded significant progress, we are far behind our peers and competitors,” says the DBE minister. “Interestingly, the highest achievement increases are from the lowest performers. This means that the lowest-achieving provinces have improved the most over the long-term period.

“Another dynamic that contributes to achievement equity is that the demographic profile in quintile four and five schools has increased to 60% African learner participation.”

See also