South Africa’s mathematics shocker

Mathematics performance among South African learners remains shockingly poor, as more learners choose to take Mathematics Literacy over core Mathematics.

The recent matric results announced by Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga reflected a pass rate of 76.2%, down by more than five percentage points compared with last year’s results.

Additionally, the “real matric pass rate”, which measures the number of students who were enrolled in grade 10 two years earlier and passed their matric exam in 2020, is now 44.1%.

The Department of Education noted in its report that it was concerned with the significant decline in the pass rate for Mathematics and Physical Science.

A pass refers to the achievement of 30% or more in a subject.

The matric results data reflects the Mathematics pass rate fell by 0.8 percentage points to 53.8%, while the Physical Science pass rate fell by 9.7 percentage points to 65.8%.

Few matrics achieve university mathematics thresholds

The Department of Planning, Monitoring, and Evaluation has set national targets for academic performance in mathematics and science.

It uses a threshold of 60% to determine the matric candidates’ potential to qualify for university faculties such as engineering, commerce, and medicine.

The latest matric results reflect a significant increase in the number of learners who achieved more than 60% for mathematics, although this figure remains shockingly poor compared with the total number of matrics.

Out of the 578,468 students who wrote matric exams, only 43,447 (8%) achieved more than 60% in Mathematics.

Compared with the total number of matrics who were enrolled in the same cohort in Grade 1 the figure is even more shocking.

The data shows that of the 1,072,993 students who were enrolled in grade 1 in 2009, only 4% went on to achieve more than 60% in matric Mathematics.

The move to Mathematics Literacy

A major factor that affects this performance is the steep decline in matrics choosing to do Mathematics.

Instead, most students now choose to study Mathematics Literacy, which precludes them from studying technical subjects at university.

The differences between the three mathematics subjects available in South Africa are detailed below:

Subject Content University
Mathematics Standard mathematics curriculum – including trigonometry, calculus, algebra, etc. Can study at university
Mathematics Literacy Easier than mathematics. Everyday calculations such as budgeting and interest.  Can study at university, but will usually be excluded from studying technical subjects such as engineering, IT, accounting, chemistry, and more.
Technical Mathematics Prepares learners for careers such as an electrician, fitter, plumber. No university exemption – only able to study at a technical college.

In 2020, 233,315 learners sat to write the matric Mathematics examination, 53.8% of whom passed.

341,363 students chose instead to write Mathematics Literacy, and 80.8% of them passed with a mark of more than 30%.

The table below reflects the total number of matrics who wrote the 2020 NSC examination, as well as the number that wrote and passed Mathematics and Mathematics Literacy.

Matric Results 2020 subjects

Mathematics vs Mathematics Literacy

The graph below shows the number of students enrolled in Mathematics vs Mathematics Literacy from 2016 to 2020.

Now read: South Africa’s “real” matric pass rate is 44%

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South Africa’s mathematics shocker