Before the Annual National Assessments last year, literacy rankings for SA pupils were based on relatively smaller samples of children.
Until then, apart from grades 9 and 12, external assessments and tests had not been done on such a large scale.
This changed in February last year when 9 million pupils from grades 2 to 10 across all nine provinces sat for tests that gauged their ability to write, read and count.
The assessments were not used to grade the pupils, but to give the department and the education sector insight into whether or not the pupils had the skills they needed to have acquired in previous grades.
The results were dismal.
The overall average score was 30 percent. The marks dipped even lower in maths and languages across all grades.
A qualitative analysis of the results compiled by the Department of Basic Education found that pupils tested for grades 1 to 3 performed better, but scores plummeted from grades 4 to 6.
For literacy, only 21 percent of the Grade 3s showed competence in comprehension – the ability to understand written text.
When they were tested on their ability to apply basic numeracy skills to solve everyday problems, like calculating change after a shopping transaction, only 25 percent of this group got it right.
Just 23 percent of pupils in this group were able to write down the next number following a given pattern.
Of the Grade 4 pupils who wrote the literacy test, only 49 percent could understand what they were reading.
The results revealed that most of the pupils from this group “could only answer questions that required direct extraction of a single word or a short phrase from the given text without any motivation or supporting statement”.
On language structure and usage, only 8 percent of the Grade 4s could change sentences given in past tense to present tense.
On “thinking and reasoning”, only 12 percent of this group could “respond to simple questions about a story and give reasons that support their answer”.
When tested on “thinking and reasoning”, 11 percent of the Grade 5s showed the ability to “answer simple questions and respond to emotions from a story”. The report found that the “mistakes in the pupils’ response often demonstrated that the learners did not understand the question, or they could not read”.
On language usage, only 20 percent of the Grade 5 pupils could correctly convert sentences in the past to the present tense.
Grade 6s didn’t fare much better with language. Under “reading and viewing”, only 23 percent understood what was happening in the story they were reading.
When tested on their ability to write texts for different purposes, only 5 percent were able to write an introduction and conclusion.
With maths, the percentage of the Grade 6s who were “competent in patterns, functions and algebra ranged from 9 to 45 percent”.
The department concluded that across all grades, pupils “demonstrated the inability to handle basic numeracy operations” and that comprehension skills were “generally low to poor”.
The department’s director- general, Bobby Soobrayan, said the results would be used as a diagnostic tool for public schools.
Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga said the low levels of literacy and numeracy in primary schools were “worrying precisely because the critical skills of literacy and numeracy are fundamental to further education and achievement in the worlds of both education and work”.
“Many of our learners lack proper foundations in [these subjects] and so they struggle to progress in the system and into post-schooling education and training,” she said.
The poor results confirmed earlier international surveys in which South African Grade 3 and 6 pupils were ranked low, with their performance being cited by educationists as a symptom of a dysfunctional education system.
The director of education rights and transformation at the University of Johannesburg, Salim Vally, said the results were “a catastrophe” and showed that SA was “at the bottom of the pile”.
The National Professional Teachers Association of SA (Naptosa) said the results showed that education was failing. “We have also been concerned that when samples of pupils in grades 3 and 6 were involved in writing similar literacy and numeracy tests… some years ago, the results did not seem to be used to inform interventions that could possibly have made a difference.”
The test now provided hard evidence on which to base decisions on what must be done and where it needed to be done, and it was now up to the department’s officials to take action, Naptosa said.