Probe after dismal Grade 9 maths mark

By Ilse Fredericks Time of article published Dec 5, 2014

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Cape Town - The country’s Grade 9 pupils scored “an unacceptably low” average of 10.8 percent in a national maths test, prompting an “intensive investigation” into the problem.

On Thursday, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga released the results of the Annual National Assessments which assessed the maths and language skills of more than 7 million pupils in grades 1 to 9. Grade 9 maths remained “our Achilles heel”.

Only 3 percent of Grade 9s scored 50 percent or higher in maths.

The average performance per grade in maths was:

* Grade 1: 68.4 percent.

* Grade 2: 61.8 percent.

* Grade 3: 55.4 percent.

* Grade 4: 37.3 percent.

* Grade 5: 37.3 percent.

* Grade 6: 43 percent.

* Grade 9: 10.8 percent.

Grade 7 and 8 pupils were tested for the first time this year as part of a pilot study, with only a sample of schools taking part.

The average scores in home languages were:

* Grade 1: 63. 2 percent.

* Grade 2: 61.1 percent.

* Grade 3: 56.2 percent.

* Grade 4: 56. 5 percent.

* Grade 5: 57. 1 percent.

* Grade 6: 62. 7 percent.

* Grade 9: 48. 3 percent.

Motshekga said evidence from pupils’ scripts had shown that those in the intermediate phase (grades 4 to 6) found it difficult to correctly answer maths questions involving problems based on words or text.

“With each grade the curriculum requirement involves a progressive understanding of mathematical terminology and applications as the required content shifts from arithmetic to algebra and basic shapes to spatial relationships. The evidence shows learners in grades 4 to 6 find it difficult to display the required problem-solving skills in these content areas.”

This learning gap continued into the senior phase (grades 7 to 9) where pupils were unable to solve problems involving algebraic manipulation and Euclidean geometry.

Motshekga said the results indicated that immediate and radical intervention was needed in the senior phase.

Pupils’ poor grasp of mathematical concepts and teachers’ “apparent lack of requisite academic-level mathematics” to teach Grade 9 maths, had to be confronted.

An intensive investigation of the factors contributing to low performance in the senior phase and Grade 9 maths in particular, would be conducted.

Education MEC Debbie Schäfer said an initial study of the results showed the Western Cape had performed higher than the national average in all grades and subject areas.

In Grade 1 language, for example, the provincial average of 68.5 was the highest and the 58.3 percent obtained by Limpopo the lowest.

“While it is pleasing that we continue to perform at a higher level compared to other provinces, the results are, in many cases, unsatisfactory. I am particularly concerned about Grade 9 mathematics which continues to show low levels of performance.”

Dr Erna Lampen, a lecturer in curriculum studies at Stellenbosch University, said the poor Grade 9 results could have been expected, since this cohort of pupils “were part of the education system for the past nine years during which very little attention was given to intervention in primary schools” and the drive was to improve matric results.

“Research evidence suggests a pattern where Grade 4 tends to be a watershed year in terms of developing a learner’s capacity for mathematical reasoning. That is when proportional reasoning in the context of fractions is an important learning goal, and failure there has a lasting influence on further development.

“Keep in mind also that a mathematics test inevitably tests language skills as well, so in a sense the very bad mathematics results confirm problems with language processing.”

She said the solution was already in the making as the Department of Basic Education had changed focus to maths and language development in the early years.

Chris Klopper, chief executive of the SA Onderwysersunie (SA Teachers’ Union), said schools tended to “teach to the test” and were failing to use the results diagnostically to improve education practice at school.

The union felt that after four years of annual national assessment results it was perhaps time to reassess the system. “The original intention was highly laudable, but I suggest we may have lost our way.”

Basil Manuel, president of the National Professional Teachers’ Organisation of SA, said the “ANArisation” phenomenon was developing in schools, “meaning that the curriculum ceases to be taught and the focus is on preparing learners to write the assessment by dedicating days of the week for such training”.

One province had even instructed schools to focus only on maths and language for two weeks before the assessments. This was stopped following intervention by the union.

Understanding your child’s ANA results

According to the Western Cape Education Department, parents can use the their child’s ANA report to compare his/her performance with the average performance of their grade.

Schools can also provide information on specific areas that need attention in language and maths.

In many cases, schools and district officials give advice to parents on what they can do at home to help develop their children’s skills in language and maths.

The ANA focused on work covered by the curriculum by the end of the third term.

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Cape Argus

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