South African Performance on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study

The release of the 2015 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) reports for grades five and nine provoked once more another storm of debates as South Africans grapple with the reasons behind the perceived poor performance in mathematics and science. This coincides with the Department of Basic Education’s announcement of 20% mathematics pass rate due to a large number of pupils who pass all subjects except mathematics and are subsequently forced to fail the grade as mathematics is one of the compulsory subjects to pass.

TIMSS is an assessment of the mathematics and science knowledge of fourth and eighth grades learners from selected countries around the world. South Africa participates at grades five and nine respectively; and it participates for the first time at grade five with only mathematics (TIMSS-Numeracy). It is important to emphasise the issue of selected countries for accurate interpretation of the reports as only 39 countries participated in 2015 for grade eight and 48 countries participated at grade four. TIMSS uses the five ‘international benchmarks’ to scale the scores, namely: Advanced (above 625 points), High (550 to 625 points), Intermediate (475 to 550 points), Low (400 to 475) and Not Achieved (less than 400). For South African context, the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) introduced an additional benchmark, Potentials, for the scores between 325 to 400 points to identify the group of learners that can be targeted for upward shifting to higher benchmark. As a result, the Not Achieved benchmark is for less than 325 points as opposed to 400 in a local context.

At grade nine level, the national average score for the country is 372 points for mathematics (38th out of 39 countries) and 358 points for science (last position). For grade five mathematics (TIMSS-Numeracy), South Africa achieved 376 points (47th out of 48 countries although the scale difference with 46thand 45th is not statistically significant). In a simple language, statistically the mathematics achievement at grade five is 45th out of 48 countries (a position shared with Morocco and Saudi Arabia). The following is the international benchmark distribution of the country’s performance at TIMSS 2015:

Summary of South African Performance on 2015 TIMSS
International Benchmark Grade 5 Grade 9
Mathematics Mathematics Science
Advanced (>625) 1% 1% 1%
High (550-625) 4% 3% 4%
Intermediate (475-550) 12% 10% 9%
Low(400-475) 22% 21% 18%
Potentials (325-400) 28% 35% 28%
Not Achieved (<325) 33% 31% 40%

The proportion of learners who obtained Intermediate, High or Advanced international benchmark levels is worryingly low: 14% for both grade nine mathematics and science; and 17% for grade five mathematics. For grade nine, at Advanced international benchmark level learners are expected to apply and reason in a variety of problem situations (fractions, percentages, proportions, geometry, averages, expected values, etc.), solve linear equations and make generalisations. About 54% of Singaporean grade eight mathematics learners achieved Advanced level, a very high value compared to 1% of South Africa.

For BRICS countries, another country that participates on TIMSS is Russia Federation and 14% of its learners achieved at Advanced level for this grade, 32% achieved at High level, another 32% at Intermediate level and 17% achieved at Low level. This performance of Russia at high school level is feeding well into science, engineering and technology (SET) human capital value chain as according to the World Economic Forum’s 2015 Human Capital Report, Russia had percentage university SET graduation of 35.1%, a high value as compared to 30.0% for South Africa. South Korea had university SET graduation of 46.6%, a value which is in tandem to its grade 8 mathematics great performance for TIMSS 2015 (position 3, with 43% of learners achieving at Advanced level and 32% at High level). South Korea has 13.5 researchers per thousand employed, whereas Russia has 6.2 and South Africa has 1.5. SET Human capital is very important for any country as it leads to technological progress. One indicator of technological progress is the number of patents filed under Patents Corporation Treaty (PCT) of which in 2013 South Africa, Russia and South Korea had 282, 1 113 and 11 942 respectively.

The low performance of South African learners for mathematics at grade five and nine (and science at grade nine) is linked to the factors at home, school and community environments. Generally the learners at independent schools performed very well followed by fee-paying public schools. The worst affected learners are those from no-fee public schools. Girls achieve relatively slightly higher than boys for both mathematics and science; as boys are reported to experience more bullying and grade repetition. Very few grade nine learners seem to be confident in mathematics and science (10% and 21% respectively). This confidence can typically be nurtured at home and community, especially during the early childhood development (ECD).

Singapore performed well for mathematics and science for the past 20 years and one key characteristic of this country’s education system is a well organised ECD which is managed and facilitated through Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA), an autonomous agency jointly overseen by the Mini stry of Education (MOE) and the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF). The five levers identified by the Organisation of Economic Corporation and Development (OECD) as key policies to encourage ECD education and care ar:

  1. setting out quality regulations and care;
  2. designing and implementing curriculum and standards;
  3. improving qualifications, training and working conditions;
  4. engaging families and communities; and
  5. advancing data collection, research and monitoring.

At South Africa, the high inequality and unemployment rate deprives many children from ECD, the result which is evident at the later stages of human capital development value chain. The White Paper on ECD proposed the measures to address the imbalances in ECD through among other things the introduction of Reception Year. We anticipate in hope that the different government interventions such as Schooling 2025 Action Plan will bear fruits in future in order to address the bleeding SET human capital pipeline.


Reddy, V., Visser, M., Winnaar, L., and Arends, F., Juan, A Prinsloo, C.H. and Isdale, K. 2016. TIMSS 2015: Highlights of Mathematics and Science achievement of Grade 9 South African Learners. Human Sciences Research Council.
Reddy, V., Isdale, K., Juan, A., Visser, M., Winnaar, L., and Arends, F. 2016. TIMSS 2015: Highlights of Mathematics achievement of Grade 5 South African Learners. Human Sciences Research Council.
Taguma, M., Litjens, I., Kim, J.H. and Makowiecki, K. 2012. Quality Matters in Early Childhood Education and Care: Korea. Organisation of Economic Corporation and Development.