Centurion – The results of an independent international assessment study of the mathematics and science knowledge of Grade 9 learners, released by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) here this morning, showed that, for the first time since 1995, the national average mathematics score of Grade 9 learners has improved in public schools.
This finding forms part of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), conducted by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA). In 2011 TIMSS was conducted in 45 countries. Of these, 42 countries participated at the Grade 8 level, and three countries, namely Botswana, South Africa and Honduras, participated at the Grade 9 level.
These three countries (Botswana, South Africa and Honduras) continued to perform at the lowest end in both mathematics and science.
“A striking feature of the mathematics and sciences scores is that the best performing South African learners approached the average performance of the top performing countries of Singapore, Chinese Taipei, the Republic of Korea, Japan, Finland, Slovenia and the Russian Federation”, says HSRC executive director and principal investigator of TIMSS Dr Vijay Reddy.
For TIMSS 2011 in South Africa, the HSRC conducted the study in 256 public schools and 27 independent schools. Nearly 12 000 Grade 9 learners participated. The HSRC also undertook TIMSS in 1995, 1999 and 2002. The trend analysis from 1995 to 2012 showed that the national average score remained static over the years 1995, 1999 and 2002.
“From 2002 to 2012 we see an improvement of both the mathematics and science score and this improvement is equivalent to raising the standard by one and half (1.5) grade levels”, Reddy says. In addition to the improved average performance, the range of the distribution of the scores between the highest and lowest decreased between 2002 and 2011.
According to Reddy this wide distribution of learner achievement reflects the wide disparities in society and schools and with scores of learners at the lowest end increasing, it could suggest a small move towards more equitable educational outcomes.
The three top performing provinces in both mathematics and science in TIMSS 2011 were the Western Cape, Gauteng and Northern Cape. The three lowest performers were KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo and the Eastern Cape. Between 2002 and 2011, Gauteng, Limpopo, NorthWest, Free State and Eastern Cape showed the most improvement. . There was no change in mathematics and science performance in the Western Cape or Northern Cape between 2002 and 2011.
Poorest schools shows most improvement
The greatest improvement was among learners who can be described as “the most disadvantaged” and who scored lowest initially. This coincides with learners and schools receiving the highest number of interventions aimed at improving the quality of education, from both public and private sector providers
“This is good news. The results suggest the value of the continued investment in low-income households and in less-resourced schools,” she says.
Top performing learners and schools not globally competitive
However, when it comes to the quantity and quality of performance at the top level, South Africa is not globally competitive. In analysing the top-end performers against the TIMSS international performance standard, the average scores for independent, former House of Assembly and Quintile  five schools, all performed below the middle score of 500 (also called “Centrepoint”).
In 2002; 10.5% of South African leaners scored above 400 points. This more than doubled in 2011, when 24% of our learners scored above 400 points – thus increasing the pool of learners who could potentially follow science and technology careers.
“Schools that have been traditionally well resourced need to be challenged and supported to improve the performance of their learners. We need to re-affirm the agenda for excellence in educational outcomes,” Reddy says.
Mathematics and science curriculum
When it comes to a comparison of the curriculum for these two disciplines, it was found that the Revised National Curriculum Statements that guided instruction and learning of mathematics and science at schools during 2002 and 2011 covered more than 90% of the TIMSS assessment framework on which the leaners were tested.
Reddy explains: “This implies that the curriculum for Grade 9 schools in South Africa is on par with the international standard, but there are many other factors that shape achievement at school level”.
The role of the school environment
There is growing evidence that the school environment plays a big part in learners’ performance. In TIMMS 2011, teachers and learners reported on the perceived level of school safety, the degree of order at schools, as well as the incidence of bullying.
The self-reported data indicates that 41% of learners attended schools where the principals rated the school discipline and safety as a “moderate” problem, which is the lowest category in the index rating for these factors. Internationally, 18% of learners attended schools where principals rated school discipline and safety as a “moderate problem”. And only 21% of learners attend schools where their mathematic teachers rated the schools as “safe” in comparison with the international standard of 45%.
The study found that globally there is evidence that bullying in schools is on the rise. This has a negative impact on learners’ educational achievement. In South Africa, 75% of learners indicated that they had experienced some form of bullying, which is far above the international average of 41%.
In terms of qualifications, 60% of mathematics learners and 53% of science learners were taught by teachers who had completed a degree. Internationally, 87% of mathematics learners and 90% of science learners are taught by teachers who have completed a degree.
The study found a strong positive relationship between the education of parents and achievement. In South Africa 19% of learners had at least one parent or caregiver who had completed a university degree of higher qualification. Internationally, 32% of learners have at least one parent with a university degree or higher qualification. This had increased from 11% in 2002.
On the issue of language, the study showed that in countries where a large proportion of learners are from homes where the language of the test is not spoken at home, the mathematics and science scores are generally lower. In South Africa, 26% of learners reported that they “almost always or always” speak the same language at home and at school, while 9% reported that they “never” speak the language of the test at home. The scores of those who speak the language of the test at home scored higher than those who do not speak the language of the test at home.
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 All South African public ordinary schools are categorised into five groups, called quintiles. The grouping is according to the poverty of the surrounding community. Quintile one is the most poor quintile, and Quintile five the most affluent