South Africa schools mathematics science ranking
(Getty Images)
  • South Africa’s Grade 5 and Grade 9 pupils score poorly on the international mathematics and science scale, failing to achieve a low benchmark rating overall.
  • The country’s rate of improvement has also dipped substantially over the last decade, according to the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study.
  • Grade 9 science proficiency ranks as the lowest in the world, beaten by Lebanon, Egypt, Kuwait, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia.
  • For more articles, go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za.

South African pupils continue to score low on the international mathematics and science scale, and – although slight improvements have been recognised – the slow rate of such improvement is of serious concern to educational experts.

These are the latest findings of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS), which was first launched in 1995. South Africa is one of 64 countries surveyed, with results for Grade 5 and Grade 9 pupils. A total of 20,829 pupils across 519 schools were assessed, with tests conducted according to curriculum-based content and cognitive thinking.

While most other countries participate with Grade 4 and Grade 8 pupils, TIMMS explains that some countries choose to administer the test to higher grades for better critical tracking purposes. 

"Because education systems vary in structure and in policies and practices with regard to age of starting school and promotion and retention, there are differences across countries in how the target grades are labelled and in the average age of students," the TIMMS stated in its overview. In this way, South Africa has applied more importance to Grade 5 and 9 pupils.

TIMMS results are structured according to global achievement scales, ranking scores in descending order by advanced, high, intermediate, and low benchmarks. Scoring begins at 400 points, which is regarded as a basic understanding of mathematics and science, and extends up to 625 points which indicates the ability to solve complex situations.

In the recently released 2019 study, South Africa ranks consistently low in mathematics and science, only showing slight growth among the number of pupils who scored above 90% for both subjects.

South Africa schools mathematics science ranking
Grade 5 assessment, South Africa (Image: TIMMS)

Among all Grade 5 pupils who participated in the mathematics assessment, 37% are ranked at a low benchmark, with 16% at an intermediate level, 5% at a high benchmark and only 1% achieving an advanced score. By contrast, this shows that 63% of pupils surveyed had not achieved basic mathematical knowledge.

This overall mathematics score of 374 puts South Africa third from the bottom, with only Pakistan and the Philippines ranked lower.

South Africa schools mathematics science ranking
Grade 4 maths, South Africa ranked at Grade 5 (Image: TIMMS)

Science achievements are even lower among South Africa’s Grade 5 pupils, with 72% of pupils failing to acquire low benchmark scores and, therefore, lacking basic knowledge. Only 28% of pupils proved to have basic understanding, with 14% reaching the intermediate benchmark and 6% reaching the high benchmark. Only 2% of pupils achieved the advanced benchmark rating.

South Africa schools mathematics science ranking
Grade 4 science, South Africa ranked at Grade 5 (Image: TIMMS)

Again, a low overall Grade 5 science score of 324 puts South Africa third from the bottom, with worse performances recorded only by Pakistan and the Philippines.

Other low-scoring nations, which have done better than South Africa in the maths and science department, include Morocco, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

Singapore, Japan and Hong Kong consistently top the scale with scores in the 600-point range.

South Africa schools mathematics science ranking
Grade 9 assessment, South Africa (Image: TIMMS)

South Africa’s global performance worsens when analysing the Grade 9 assessment data. While the basic benchmark proficiency has risen to 36% – with 15% of pupils reaching the intermediate level, 5% achieving a high benchmark rating and 1% in the advanced range – South Africa ranks as the lowest international performer.

With a score of 370, South Africa’s Grade 9 science rank is beaten by all other countries participating in the TIMMS, including low benchmark nations like Lebanon, Egypt, Kuwait, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia.

South Africa schools mathematics science ranking
Grade 8 science, South Africa ranked for Grade 9 (Image: TIMMS)

Grade 9 mathematics has only performed marginally better, ranking second from the bottom with a score of 389. Only Morocco scored lower with 388 points. A total of 59% of all learners failed to achieve a low benchmark, basic understanding of mathematics, with 13% reaching an intermediate level, 3% achieving a high benchmark and 1% of pupils classed as advanced.

South Africa schools mathematics science ranking
Grade 8 mathematics, South Africa ranked for Grade 9 (Image: TIMMS)

Comparing South Africa’s 2019 results to previous assessments, TIMMS noted a decreased rate of improvement which was especially concerning in Grade 9. “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,” the study noted. “However, for the 2011 to 2019 period these figures fall to 4.6 points and 4.8 points per year.”

The study added, however, that while South Africa’s educational system remains deeply divided along socioeconomic lines, the highest rate of growth was seen among the lowest provincial performers, including schools in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape.

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