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A national crisis. That’s how Professor Werner Olivier has described the dismal mathematics score revealed in the annual national assessment (ANA) this week.
“It is actually a disaster,” said Olivier, the head of the mathematics school at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, of the 13 percent pass in the subject for grade 9s in the public school system.
“You cannot have a normal society in an abnormal school system and we’re seeing the symptoms of that … It’s very clear something is horribly wrong. At grade 10 level when you see the size of the percentage of learners not knowing the difference between multiplying and addition in some cases … it’s really a critical phase, the senior phase.
“If they’re missing the abstraction of the number concept and the arithmetic that goes along with it … then there’s a huge problem. To catch up, the content gap is so large.”
The ANA is a testing programme which requires all schools to conduct the same, grade-specific language and maths tests for Grades 1 to 6 and 9.
Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga said provincial marks ranged between 9 and 17 percent
“These results explain to a very large extent why, among many other reasons, we have such high failure and drop-out rates at Grades 10 and 11.”
Motshekga said the department was concerned that few pupils pursued maths and science in the further education and training phase, and that even those who had the potential to take these subjects did not.
“Among many other reasons, including the availability of teachers, is the fear of failing as they witness others not making the grade,” Motshekga said.
Olivier said that while the national assessment did show “marginal improvements”, grade 8 to 12 were critically important and it was here where there were major challenges.
“Even in so-called functional schools in urban areas, these are the previously disadvantaged schools that have administration and some teachers, their average lies at 20 percent and it correlates very well with the 13 percent figure.
“I’ve been the head of maths for 10 years. Students do not cope in general. There is a chasm between secondary and higher education.”
His unit runs a mathematics and science incubator school for grade 11 and 12 pupils, which uses cutting edge technology to improve understanding for these subjects. He explained that the unit sought out top performers in the subjects.
“In the metro areas of the Eastern Cape, the top learner will achieve 35 percent to 4 percent. Our research shows those who get distinction in maths are less than a percent
“Given our Generation Z and their expectations, where they have huge interest in blended digital diet whether it’s for social interaction or education that is what we’re trying to respond to. To build a bridge between them and educators,” Olivier said.
Education expert Graeme Bloch also lambasted the ANAs and asked: “Where will we get the scientists for the SKA or malaria cures, let alone the engineers and doctors we need?”
But, he said, we should not “beat our breasts”. “There is improvement at the lower grades – the point of the ANAs is precisely to reveal problems and to enable focus on the foundations. There is some potential improvement at the lower grades – will this be sustained and improved? What we have may be an improvement in some ways, but is not good enough.” Bloch added that results tell us there is no quick fix.
“Slogans and hopes will not help. It will take some years and some deep discussion on the purpose of mathematics, to get the results we need (let alone the problems in reading and language). We are sad victims of our history and even our achievements – good mathematics graduates would rather earn as accountants or engineers than as maths teachers,” he said.
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