Minister Angie Motshekga: Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study 2015 results

29 Nov 2016

Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga, media statement in response to TIMSS 2015 results, SA most improved education system in the world

As you have heard from the statement from Dr Reddy of the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) we are very pleased with the consistent improvements we have seen in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) results.

This independent study gives an encouraging account of how we measure up in a widely recognised international testing programme aimed largely at assessing whether countries are making progress in education over time.

The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) 2015 study point towards a steady but upward trajectory of the education sector. Within the context of a maturing democratic education system, there is much to be appreciated and much to be done.

The values and targets we have set ourselves through the National Development Plan embolden us to strive for academic excellence in prioritised areas of Mathematics and Science.

We are proud to be a leading African participant among 59 countries in TIMSS 2015.

Our participation in internationally benchmarked studies provides valuable and credible information that can disentangle post-truth politics and affirm the upward trajectory in the sector evidenced by improving Mathematics and Science skills; better schooling conditions; and decreasing inequality in education communities.

Large-scale assessment programmes such as TIMSS, PIRLS and SACMEQ offer a reliable independent measure to monitor the performance of our learners in key subject areas in order to assess the health of the education system.

We remain committed towards using data from these studies to progressively increase education outputs. In 2017, we will officially release the results of the SACMEQ IV study and the PIRLS 2016 study.

I want to thank Dr Reddy and her team from the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) for presenting a clear and concise report on the findings. I am pleased that there are several noteworthy take-away points for the sector to be further armed with, in our efforts to advance quality basic education irrespective of where learners are located in the country.

Firstly, let us acknowledge that South African scores in Mathematics and Science are low but improving. The study shows that South Africa has made the biggest improvement of any education system in the world since we have been participating in the study.

TIMSS performance from 2003 to 2015 shows that there was a significant improvement of 87 points for Mathematics and 90 points for Science, more than for any other country with comparable data. The improved TIMSS scores should also be viewed in context of concentrated efforts and support provided in the senior phase. Historically, this phase has been a challenge for the sector.

The 2014 ANA results showed that while there were noteworthy improvements, in lower grades; the senior phase was challenged in not delivering the expected progress against targets we had set ourselves.

Therefore, in 2015, the year that we participated in TIMSS, we had to fast-track support to identified schools and districts where large numbers of learners were considered underperforming. At the same time, the Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement (CAPS) has provided stability in the sector by giving teachers clear guidelines on content, pedagogy and assessment and this has positively influenced learner performance in these phases.

At the Grade 9 level, the TIMSS 2015 results show that there were noteworthy improvements at the lower and top end of achievement scores.

The highest gains were achieved by learners at the lower end and the encouraging news is that 3.2% of Mathematics learners and 4.9% of Science learners can be categorised at the high levels of achievement (i.e. scoring over 550 points). Basically this means that we are seeing the gap between the lower performing schools and higher performing schools getting smaller.

This is a huge step in the right direction in terms of improving equality in education.

As Dr Reddy as reported, we will continue to give greater focus to learners that have the potential to improve their scores to above 400 points. This will positively influence the results of South Africa even further in the next TIMSS cycle.

At the Grade 5 level, our performance in the TIMSS Numeracy (TIMSS-N) study was below 400 points but it represents an important baseline from which we can harness valuable data on fundamental mathematical knowledge, procedures and problem-solving strategies of learners in the intermediate phase of schooling.

The profile of data at this level will assist the sector to identify areas where basic mathematical knowledge can be improved so we move above 400 points in the next Numeracy study

It is important to foreground the importance of TIMSS contextual data for improving educational outcomes in the sector. The contextual data is quite striking and interesting to note.

While we have seen improvements in terms of equality, the differences are still stark. Government has a concentrated pro-poor strategy to support schools in Quintiles 1 to 3 (which we call no-fee paying schools), we have to strengthen our efforts as a sector to close the differentiated gap in performance between public no-fee paying schools and public fee paying schools, in favour of raising performance in poorer schooling communities.

The results by province also show quite unique stories. The decrease in provincial inequalities with the lower performing provinces demonstrating the biggest improvements in achievement shows that our targeted intervention programmes in selected provinces and districts are starting to bear fruit.

The analysis showed that since 2003, Limpopo had the highest Grade 9 average score increase, by more than 100 points, in Mathematics and Science.

Two provinces have historically jostled and competed for top spot. Gauteng had the highest scores at Grade 9, achieving above 400 points while Western Cape had the top position at Grade 5.

A particularly valuable set of information from the study is how learners live and learn. There is sufficient evidence in the study to suggest that the home environment is an important socio-economic factor that cannot be ignored in impacting learning and performance.

An intriguing finding of the report is that the educational level of parents in South Africa has considerably improved between 2003 and 2015, especially in Gauteng which increased from 26% to 48%, while in the Western Cape the observed pattern was the opposite.

This may be an area of further investigation and we need to better understand the educational context of parents and their children migrating to Gauteng. We know that research on education suggests that parental involvement actually influences educational outcomes and learners profit from this involvement.

The TIMSS data suggests that Gauteng may be benefitting from a migration of educated parents who take up jobs in the province.

In terms of curriculum achievement in relation to specific content areas and cognitive domains, there are encouraging signs but the data must be mined further to extract deeper understandings of diagnostic learning gaps in Mathematics and Science.

The high level observations in Mathematics and Science suggest a “back to basics” approach and a greater understanding of mathematical and science language, fractions and symbols. More emphasis must be placed on teaching and mastering knowledge test items but it was pleasing to note that South African learners are now starting to show higher levels of performance on application and reasoning items.

Given the richness of the data, it will be important for data utilisation to go beyond academic research and reach the level of the classroom practitioners. The findings must inform classroom practice and help raise standards in Mathematics and Science. I have requested the HSRC to work with curriculum and assessment experts to mine the data for further diagnostic analyses that will benefit the sector.

A Round Table to discuss the diagnostic analysis will take place in the first quarter of 2017. The inputs from the Round Table will then be used in provincial training workshops on the utilisation of TIMSS diagnostic information to strengthen Mathematics and Science teaching and learning.

The TIMSS released items will be packaged for release to schools together with a supply of national diagnostic assessment tools designed to further support teachers in designing quality school based assessments.

The data from the study will also be used to strengthen and further inform existing and planned interventions. In the next two weeks, a Mathematics indaba has been scheduled at the Department of Basic Education to discuss and conceptualise minimum standards at key stages and the content that is required to assess those standards.

Key among those discussions will be the use of a common textbook in Mathematics which outlines the same methodology on concepts for all learners across school type and location.

The data will also be used to further inform our existing partnership training programmes on improving technical expertise in Mathematics, Science and Technology with the Japanese International Cooperation Agency and with the Korean National Institute for International Education.

One area of concern that was identified in the report is the high level of bullying prevalent in our schools. Bullying is a global phenomenon that has no race or class boundaries and undermines the safe learning environments that learners need in order to achieve their full potential. 

The long term impact of bullying is indisputable for both the victim and perpetrator. To this end the department has developed an anti-bullying campaign within the safety in education programme. This incorporates a number of elements including a teacher training and guidelines for schools on how to deal with bullying among others.

Finally, let me conclude by welcoming this official release of the TIMSS 2015 reports into the public domain. It is now up to critical players the sector to energise the findings into focused interventions that can lift the country’s performance in Mathematics and Science to levels we all can be proud off.

I therefore invite all education stakeholders and the broader South African republic to view the results with a sense of ownership and involvement to support the projects, programmes and efforts of the department in our mission to deliver quality basic education in Mathematics and Science.

Elijah Mhlanga
Cell: 083 580 8275

Troy Martens
Cell: 079 899 3070

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