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Study shows SA pupils still bottom of the global class in maths and science

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A new study shows the country’s pupils still perform poorly in both maths and science with disadvantaged non-fee paying schools faring lower than fee paying schools.

A new study shows the country’s pupils still perform poorly in both maths and science with disadvantaged non-fee paying schools faring lower than fee paying schools.

SOUTH African school pupils’ maths and science ability has improved at Grade 9 level, albeit at a slower pace, while primary school achievement remains poor compared to other countries, a global survey has revealed.

The latest Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) 2019 results released by the Human Sciences Research Council and Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga yesterday showed the country’s pupils still perform poorly in both maths and science with disadvantaged non-fee paying schools scoring lower in the subjects than fee paying schools.

The Grade 5 test administration was conducted in 291 schools with 11 891 pupils in October 2018, while the Grade 9 data collection took place in 519 schools with 20829 pupils across the country in September 2019.

According to the study of the 39 countries that participated in TIMSS 2019, South Africa continued to attain lower mathematics and science achievements in Grade 9 although there was some “statistically significant” improvement.

“The TIMSS achievement scores can describe mathematical and science abilities. Forty-one percent of mathematics learners demonstrated they had acquired basic mathematical knowledge, and 36% of science learners had acquired basic science knowledge,” the study found.

“South African mathematics and science achievement averages have improved from ‘very low’ (1995, 1999 and 2003) to ‘low’ (2011, 2015 and 2019). From 2003 to 2019, the mathematics and science achievement increased by one standard deviation (104 points for mathematics and 102 points for science).”

However, the study raised concern that the pace of improvement had declined over the years.

The study also found that pupils fared better in science than mathematics which bodes well for the economy’s demand for highly­ skilled tertiary education graduates, especially in science, engineering and technology (SET) subjects.

Of the 64 countries and regional entities which participated in TIMSS for Grade 5, South Africa continued to be one of the lower performing countries in both mathematics and science. Sixty-three percent of pupils had not acquired basic mathematical knowledge and 72% had not acquired basic science knowledge.

“South African achievement continues to be unequal and socially graded. On the one hand achievement gaps, though decreasing, continue to be linked to socio­economic backgrounds, spatial location, attending fee­ paying versus no­-fee schools, and the province of residence…The highest achievement increases are from the lowest performers. This means that the lowest achieving provinces have improved the most over the long­term period,” the study found.

The study also reported that SA pupils lacked home resources.

“The availability of educational resources in the home is significantly correlated with mathematics and science achievement. Learners from homes who lack basic services like running tap water and flush toilets in their homes obtain lower achievement scores,” the study found.

Dr Nic Spaull, a senior researcher in the Economics Department at Stellenbosch University, said the results were “encouraging” and in line with other evidence seen in recent years.

“They show that at the Grade 9 level the number of children who can do basic maths has improved from 24% in 2011 to 34% in 2015 and up to 41% by 2019. While that is still a very low benchmark and still less than half of kids are reaching it, it’s good news that the system is consistently improving,” he said.

However, he said it was “concerning and unexpected” that Grade 5 mathematics results showed no improvement between 2015 and 2019.

“It’s clear we need to prioritise the early grades when building foundational reading and numeracy skills. Most of the problems we see in Grade 5 are already evident by Grade 2 and 3,” he said.

He added the gains were all pre-Covid-19.

“I suspect school closures and the massive learning losses resulting from those closures have completely wiped out any of these gains since 2015. Some estimates are saying that for poor learners they may have lost up to 70% of a year of learning due to the pandemic,” he said.

University of KwaZulu-Natal education expert Professor Labby Ramrathan said the outcomes were not unexpected as the country had been on the lower end of the scale for some time.

He said “drastic improvements” were needed in school infrastructure to develop conducive learning environments as well as an increase in teaching and learning resources.

“Parents need to increasingly become more involved and most importantly, learners need to have an attitude change by recognising that education is the path to social and economic upliftment,” he said.