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Johannesburg - Grade Nine maths scores in South Africa have improved for the first time since 1995, according to a study released by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) on Tuesday.
“For the first time since 1995, the national average mathematics score of Grade Nine learners has improved in public schools,” the HSRC said in a statement.
The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), conducted by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA), assessed maths and science knowledge in 45 countries. Of these, 42 countries participated at the Grade Eight level. Three countries - Botswana, South Africa and Honduras - participated at the Grade Nine level.
All three continued to perform at the lowest end in both maths 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,” said Dr Vijay Reddy, HSRC spokesman and TIMSS researcher.
For the South African leg, 256 public schools and 27 independent schools were surveyed by the HSRC.
Nearly 12,000 Grade nine pupils participated. The HSRC also undertook TIMSS in 1995, 1999, and 2002.
Analysing the trend from 1995 to 2012 showed 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,” said Reddy.
The improvement was equivalent to raising the standard by one-and-a-half (1.5) grade levels.
Poor schools which had recorded the lowest initial scores saw the greatest improvement.
But South Africa's top performers were not globally competitive.
Average scores from top performers from independent, former white, and the wealthiest schools all performed below the middle score of 500 in the tests.
In 2002, 10.5 percent of local pupils scored above 400 points.
This more than doubled in 2011, when 24 percent of pupils scored above 400 points, thus increasing the pool of potential science and technology graduates.
“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,” said Reddy.
South African curricula for maths and science were on a par with the international standard, but other factors affected achievement.
Researchers found 41 percent of pupils attended schools where discipline and safety were rated as “moderate” Ä the lowest category.
Internationally, 18 percent of pupils attended these schools.
Only 21 percent of local pupils attended schools rated “safe”, compared to the international standard of 45 percent.
In South Africa, 75 percent of children indicated they had experienced bullying, far above the international average of 41 percent.
In total 60 percent of maths pupils and 53 percent of science pupils were taught by teachers who had completed a degree. Internationally, the norm is 87 percent of maths pupils and 90 percent of science pupils.
There was a strong link between parents' education and pupil achievement.
Locally, 19 percent of children had a parent or caregiver who had completed a university degree or higher qualification, compared to 32 percent internationally.
Maths and science scores were generally lower in countries where a large proportion of pupils were from homes where the test language was not spoken at home.
In South Africa, 26 percent of pupils reported they almost always or always spoke the same language at home and at school. Nine percent said they never did.