The shocking state of maths and science education in South Africa

 ·8 Dec 2020
Maths fail

The Department of Basic Education has presented the latest findings of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study 2019 (TIMSS), showing how South African students compare to the rest of the world.

The report primarily focuses on Grade 4 and Grade 8 students, however some countries choose to administer TIMSS to a different grade.

South Africa and its bench-marking systems assessed fifth and ninth-grade students to better match their curricula and to “maintain trend measurement”. South African students were therefore on average older than many of the other international counterparts who were considered as part of the TIMSS assessment.

Despite the grade advantage, the data shows that South African students consistently scored in the bottom three countries for a range of tests.

On the TIMMS scale, learners who achieve 400 TIMSS points are described as having acquired the basic mathematical or science knowledge for that grade.

Grade 5

Of the 64 countries and regional entities who participated in the Grade 4 TIMSS, South African students scored an average of 374 for mathematics, and 324 for science – well below the 400 ‘basic’ threshold.

Higher achievements mean that learners possess the ability to apply knowledge in simple or complex solutions and to communicate understandings.

Just over a third (37%) of South African learners demonstrated that they had acquired basic mathematical knowledge, and 28% had acquired basic science knowledge.

This means that 63% of learners had not acquired basic mathematical knowledge and 72% had not acquired basic science knowledge, the department said.


Grade 9 

Of the 39 countries that participated in the Grade 8 TIMSS 2019, South Africa continued to attain lower mathematics and science achievements.

The South African 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 2015 TIMSS report.

The department said that 41% of mathematics learners demonstrated that they had acquired basic mathematical knowledge and 36% of science learners had acquired basic science knowledge.

Percentage of students with achievements too low for estimation

Of particular concern in the report is the number of students with ‘achievements too low for estimation’.

Students were considered to have achievement too low for estimation if their performance on the assessment was no better than could be achieved by simply guessing on the multiple-choice assessment item.

  • Grade 4 Maths: 6% scored too low (average correct was 36%);
  • Grade 4 Science: 28% scored too low (average correct was 25%);
  • Grade 8 Maths: 26% scored too low (average correct was 19%);
  • Grade 8 Science: 17% scored too low (average correct was 25%).

In explaining some of the challenges facing the country’s education system, the department said that the results can be partly explained by the unequal status of students and their differing backgrounds.

“Home conditions continue to be unequal, and some homes are still not conducive to learning activities,” it said.

“Learners from homes lacking the basic amenities, such as running tap water and flush toilets have the lowest educational outcomes. In order to increase achievements, the starting point of some learners is improved home conditions.”

The department also noted an apparent disconnect between teacher qualifications and learner achievements.

“Compared with other countries, South African educators attended the highest number of professional courses. However, learners’ mathematics and science achievements do not match the level of tertiary education and the extent of professional development courses that educators have attended.

“Education and training is a massive investment, and the quality of this investment must be investigated and strengthened,” it said.

Read: Here are 13 new subjects planned for schools in South Africa

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