The worrying truth behind SA’s ‘improved’ maths and science marks

Education quality assurer uMalusi recently expressed delight that South Africa’s maths and science marks are improving, but the actual numbers show that things are getting worse.

On the face of it, the results from the 2017 matric exams show that both the mathematics and physical sciences scores improved, with 51.9% and 65.2% of learners passing the subject – achieving more than 30% – up from 51.1% and 52.3% in 2016.

However, both subjects had fewer learners actually writing the exams than last year, resulting in the lowest number of actual passes (number of learner passes) since 2014 for maths, and 2015 for science.

About 75,000 fewer matrics wrote the exams in 2017 than in 2016, but the number of registrations for the exams was only down by 25,000 or so candidates, showing a large drop-off between registration and writing.

This drop-off led to over 20,000 fewer learners penning the maths exams in 2017, and over 13,000 fewer sitting for physical sciences.

Maths and science woes

It is well reported that when it comes to maths and science, South Africa’s performance is among the worst in the world – whether it be in the competitiveness surveys run by the World Economic Forum, or the results in the Trends in International Maths and Science Study (TIMSS).

The numbers are even more telling when looking at the passes in the ranges that give access to degrees that carry a high demand in the South African work space.

South Africa has a significant skills shortage in the engineering and IT space, which show up as the most in-demand skills needed (often carrying some of the highest salaries) quarter after quarter on the country’s jobs portals.

The two key subjects for any engineering or IT-related degree are mathematics and natural sciences – with maths being compulsory in both fields, usually asking for an 80% minimum to secure guaranteed entry into engineering courses, and 70% for computer science degrees.

While 51.9% and 65.2% of matrics passed maths and science, respectively, even fewer who passed with high enough marks to enter the engineering or computer science fields.

According to the subject report on the 2017 national senior certificate, 245,103 learners wrote the mathematics papers in 2017, and only 6,726 passed with the 80% needed to guarantee entry into most engineering degrees.

16,656 passed with more than 70%, which is enough to guarantee entry into computer science courses – however, in both cases this represents only 2.7% (engineering) and 6.8% (computer science) of all candidates.

This is down from the 3.0% of students who achieved 80% or more in 2016 for maths, and down from the 8.9% who achieved higher than 70% for physical sciences the same year.

The table below outlines the differences between 2016 and 2017’s maths and science results.

Subject Number wrote 2016 Number passed 2016 Number wrote 2017 Number passed 2017 Change (passed)
Mathematics 265 810 135 958 245 103 127 197 -8 761
Physical Science 192 618 119 427 179 561 116 862 -2 565
Guaranteed Engineering entry Number above requirements 2016 % of total 2016 Number above requirements 2017 % of total 2017 Change
Mathematics (80%) 7 974 3.0% 6 726 2.7% -1 248
Physical Science (70%) 17 143 8.9% 16 531 9.2% -612
Guaranteed Computer Science entry Number above requirements 2016 % of total 2016 Number above requirements 2017 % of total 2017 Change
Mathematics (70%) 18 075 6.8% 16 565 6.8% -1 510

Source: 2017 School Subject Report, 2016 Diagnostic Report, UCT. Numbers are approximates based on supplied data.

Read: 2017 Matric bachelor passes – 28.7%

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The worrying truth behind SA’s ‘improved’ maths and science marks