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11 December 2020

Western Cape Department of Education and HSRC release province’s performance in TIMSS 2019 Study

Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC)
Press Release

Pretoria, Friday 11 December 2020 – The Western Cape province, in addition to being part of the national sample, participated as a self-standing entity called a “benchmarking participant” in TIMSS 2019. This provides Western Cape an opportunity to assess the comparative international standing of their learners’ achievement. “It is brave for the province to expose its educational outcomes to international scrutiny” says Dr Vijay Reddy, Principal Investigator of TIMSS 2019 and Distinguished Research Specialist at the Human Sciences Research Council.  Reddy adds that the results from the Western Cape TIMSS  provides a more precise estimate of achievement scores and an opportunity for a more textured analysis of the teaching and learning in the province.

Please find below the the PDF of the TIMSS powerpoint for the Western Cape province.

The Western Cape is one of the two most economically affluent provinces and its economy demands high-skilled tertiary education graduates, especially in Science, Engineering and Technology (SET) subjects. Western Cape is also a province of socioeconomic contrasts. Within this context, TIMSS measures the health of the Western Cape education system. Mathematics and science achievement at Grade 9 will predict the quantity and quality of successful matriculants, and the potential pool who can then go on to study technical subjects at the tertiary level.

The Human Sciences Research Council released the results of the Western Cape in the report TIMSS 2019: Highlights of Western Cape Grade 9 Results in Mathematics and Science authored by Vijay Reddy, Andrea Juan, Lolita Winnaar, Fabian Arends, Jaqueline Harvey, Sylvia Hannan and Ncamisile Zulu. TIMSS is project of the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) headquartered in Amsterdam. The IEA, with the International Study Centre, based at Boston College, released the international results of the study on 8 December 2020.

Forty-six countries and entities participated at the Grade 8 or 9 level in TIMSS 2019. The top five ranked countries were from East Asia – Singapore, Chinese Taipei, Republic of Korea, Japan and Hong Kong SAR. The five lowest performing countries were Oman, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, South Africa and Morocco – countries from Africa and the Middle East. The Western Cape mathematics and science achievement ranks in the lower third of TIMSS participating countries. Its achievement is similar to Chile, Qatar, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Western Cape achieved an average of 441 TIMSS points in mathematics and 439 TIMSS points for science. This performance is higher than the South African average by 52 points for mathematics and 69 points for science. The TIMSS achievement scores can be translated to describe mathematical and science abilities. Two-thirds of mathematics learners and 60% of science learners demonstrated that they had acquired basic mathematics and science knowledge respectively.
It is particularly noteworthy that there are some very talented and globally competitive learners in the Western Cape and 3% of mathematics learners and 6% of science learners (compared to an international average of 7%) reached the highest ability level (called the “advanced” benchmark). This means that that they could use application and reasoning skills in a variety of mathematics and science problems. One third of mathematics and science learners reached the international intermediate benchmark demonstrating that learners ‘have and can apply knowledge in a variety of situations’. This represents the pool of learners who could proceed successfully to Grade 12 and subsequently enrol for tertiary level technical subjects.  

With the caveat of the less precise Western Cape achievement scores in earlier TIMSS cycles, we can say that from 2011 to 2019 Western Cape mathematics achievement scores significantly increased from 408 to 441, an increase of 33 TIMSS points and in science from 413 to 439, an increase of 26 TIMSS points.

The 2019 performance of learners in the Western Cape was unequal and socially graded. On the one hand, achievement gaps were found to be linked to socio-economic backgrounds, spatial location and attending a fee-paying or no-fee schools. This confirms the well-known narrative that advantage begets advantage and resource disadvantages in the home continues to school learning outcomes. On the other hand, the biggest achievement increases were from the lowest performing learners, contributing to decrease the achievement gap. The achievement gap (difference in achievement scores between learners in fee-paying and no-fee schools) was 70 points for mathematics and a higher 96 points for science. On average, close half the mathematics learners and 40% science learners in no-fee schools, and three-quarters of learners in fee-paying schools demonstrated that they had acquired basic mathematical and science knowledge.

The international evidence on the relationship between gender and achievement is mixed, not only across countries but also within countries. In Western Cape, mathematics and science achievement scores were higher for boys than for girls, but this difference is not statistically significant. However, there are significant gender differences in the content domains of Number, Geometry, Physics and Earth Sciences where boys significantly outscore girls. Boys also achieve significantly higher scores in items requiring the cognitive skills of applying and reasoning.

Learners performed better in items that required them to select a response (multiple-choice question) than in items where they had to write a response. Learners had more difficulty writing descriptions or explanations. In order to encourage writing, the HSRC recommends that the national reading strategy expanded to a ‘Reading and Writing Strategy’.

In addition to collecting achievement data, TIMSS also collected data about the home, school and classroom conditions and environments in order to understand the context in which learners live and learn.  

Learners who speak the language of the test at home will have better linguistic access to the TIMSS assessment and be able to respond more successfully. While, overall 65% of Grade 9 learners spoke the language of the test at home, only 37% of learners in no-fee schools did, in comparison to 80% of learners in fee paying schools.  An issue of concern in the Western Cape province is school climate. High numbers of educators and learners feel unsafe in school. The school climate is reflective of the climate of the community in which the school is based. A healthy school climate requires the leadership and support of the school management and the surrounding community. Learners in schools with a healthier school climate (emphasis on academic success, fewer disciplinary problems and incidences of bullying, safe and orderly schools) have higher achievements.

The TIMSS 2019: Highlights of Western Cape Grade 9 Results in Mathematics and Science report can be found on the TIMSS-SA website (

About the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC)

The HSRC was established in 1968 as South Africa’s statutory research agency and has grown to become the largest dedicated research institute in the social sciences and humanities on the African continent, doing cutting-edge public research in areas that are crucial to development.

Our mandate is to inform the effective formulation and monitoring of government policy; to evaluate policy implementation; to stimulate public debate through the effective dissemination of research-based data and fact-based research results; to foster research collaboration; and to help build research capacity and infrastructure for the human sciences.

The Council conducts large-scale, policy-relevant, social-scientific research for public sector users, non-governmental organizations and international development agencies. Research activities and structures are closely aligned with South Africa’s national development priorities.

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