The best and worst provinces for mathematics in South Africa

The Western Cape has by far the most competent learners in the field of mathematics and science, while Limpopo has the least competent, according to the TIMSS 2019 report.

The report uses a points-based system to determine the competence of learners who take benchmark tests in mathematics and science.

South African Grade 5 and Grade 9 learners are tested at a fourth and eighth-grade level “to better match their curricula and to maintain trend measurement.”

Despite this, South Africa finished third-last in the fourth-grade category, and second last in the eighth-grade category.

The point-based system is as follows:

  • Low benchmark – 400
  • Intermediate Benchmark – 475
  • High benchmark – 550
  • Advanced Benchmark – 625

Grade 5 learners who achieve a score of 400 or higher are described as showing “some basic mathematical knowledge” and “some knowledge of physical and earth sciences” respectively.

For Grade 9 learners, the low benchmark for mathematics means the learner “shows some knowledge of whole numbers and basic graphs,” while for science they “have some knowledge of biology, physical, and earth sciences.”

Western Cape leads in South Africa

The Western Cape is the only province in South Africa where Grade 5 learners averaged above the 400-point low benchmark in both mathematics and science.

It scored 441 in mathematics and 415 in science – the leading scores out of all South African provinces.

The only other province to pass the low benchmark score for Grade 5s in either mathematics or science was Gauteng, which scored 410 in mathematics but only 379 in science.

Limpopo’s Grade 5 learners scored the worst of all South African provinces, achieving an average score of just 331 in mathematics and 274 in science.

The data is represented graphically by the government below.

Provincial performance - TIMMS

The Western Cape was also the top-scoring province for the Grade 9 assessment, scoring 441 for mathematics and 439 for science – significantly higher than the national averages of 389 and 370 respectively.

Again, its nearest competitor was Gauteng, which scored 421 for mathematics and 422 for science.

Western Cape Education Department minister Debbie Schafer said the Western Cape is showing great growth in these assessments.

“By far the most pleasing result is the increase in Grade 9 scores since the 2011 round – we have achieved a 37-point increase in Mathematics and 18-point increase in Science,” said Schafer.

“This is a testament to the excellent work that the Department and our schools have done to continuously improve education standards across the province.”

Schafer aims to increase the Western Cape’s scores into the intermediate category in the future.

“We now set our sights on achieving the TIMSS centre point score of 500,” said Schafer.

“I have no doubt that the incredible officials, school staff and learners across our province can achieve this!”

Disappointing national results

TIMSS data shows that just 37% of South African Grade 5 learners passed the 400-point lowest benchmark for mathematics, while just 28% passed this benchmark for science.

For Grade 9 learners, these figures were 41% and 36% respectively.

Only 1% of South African Grade 5 learners reached the 625-point advanced benchmark for mathematics, while 2% achieved this for science.

The same benchmark was achieved by just 1% of Grade 9 learners in both mathematics and science.

The government was particularly disappointed with the lack of growth shown by Grade 5s in terms of TIMSS scores.

“From the TIMSS data, we are unable to explain why achievement scores did not increase,” said government.

“The Grade 5 results are particularly perplexing as the TIMSS mathematics and science achievements increased in Grade 9.”

“We recommend an investigation into the primary school education sector, including issues such as the support provided to primary schools in relation to secondary schools, nature of teaching, learning, and assessments in primary schools.”

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The best and worst provinces for mathematics in South Africa