Concern on pace of improvements in maths and science

Johannesburg – The 2019 South African component of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science study (TIMSS) has expressed concern at the rate of improvements in mathematics and science for Grade 9 learners.

“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),” the study revealed.

The Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) and Minister of Basic Education, Angie Motshekga, released the TIMMS on Grade 5 and 9 learners on Tuesday.

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

Higher achievements mean that learners possess abilities to apply knowledge in simple or complex situations or to generalise.

“It is noteworthy that 1% of learners achieved at the advanced benchmark and that 3% of mathematics learners and 5% of science learners scored higher than 550 TIMSS points (the high benchmark); 13% of mathematics learners and 15% of science learners scored higher than 475 TIMSS points (the Intermediate Benchmark).

“Forty-one (41) percent of South African learners acquired basic mathematical knowledge and 36% acquired basic science knowledge. This implies that 59% of learners had not acquired basic mathematical knowledge and 64% had not acquired basic science knowledge. South Africa still has a way to go to improve mathematics and science basic knowledge,” TIMMS showed.

The South African TIMSS 2019 mathematics score of 389 (SE 2.3) and the science score of 370 (3.1) is an increase of 17 points for mathematics and 12 points for science from the previous TIMSS 2015.

“The increase is statistically significant at the 95% level for mathematics, and at the 90% level for science,” TIMMS revealed.

TIMMS noted that the changing South African economy has a higher demand for high skilled tertiary education graduates, especially in Science, Engineering and Technology (SET) subjects.

“The increased proportion of Grade 9 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 (learners have and can apply knowledge) levels,” TIMMS revealed.

The Grade 9 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. Data collection occurred in 519 schools with 20 829 learners across the country.

Grade 5 key findings

The Grade 5 test administration was conducted in 291 schools with 11 891 learners in October 2018.

Over one third (37%) of Grade 5 South African learners demonstrated that they had acquired basic mathematical knowledge and 28% had acquired basic science knowledge.

“By way of contrast; this means that 63% of learners had not acquired basic mathematical knowledge and 72% had not acquired basic science knowledge.

“On a positive note, 16% of mathematics and science learners scored higher than the 475 points (Intermediate Benchmark) meaning that they are able to apply knowledge to solve problems,” the study revealed.

The TIMSS 2015 and 2019 cycles provided the first trend measure for mathematics achievement.

“The difference of average mathematics score of 376 (3.5) in TIMSS 2015 and 374 (4.7) in TIMSS 2019 is not statistically significant. This means that there was no change in the achievement performance over these two periods,” the study showed.

The achievement gap between learners attending fee-paying and no­ fee 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 no ­fee schools for mathematics and in no ­fee 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 revealed.

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