Low attainment

The objective of FaSMEd’s Work Package 2 is to establish a baseline of data on the approaches to low achievers in maths and science in the EU and South Africa. The Work Package leaders have asked the questions below (in bold) and some responses have been added from published policy and research documents.

How is ‘low achievement in mathematics’ interpreted in your country? (How are low achievers considered in teaching practices in your country? How are they helped?)

Learner achievement on the Annual National Assessment, in Grades 1-6 and 9, is graded on a seven point scale. So, in all grades, at least 50% is required in order to be deemed to be performing at the “adequate achievement” level (DBE website).

7 Outstanding achievement 80 – 100
6 Meritorious achievement 70 – 79
5 Substantial achievement 60 – 69
4 Adequate achievement 50 – 59
3 Moderate achievement 40 – 49
2 Elementary achievement 30 – 39
1 Not achieved 0 – 29

In terms of the different levels of performance for Numeracy/Mathematics in 2013, quoted in the speech of the minister of basic education (DBE website):

  •  In Grade 1, 71% of learners achieved above 50%, compared to 77% in 2012.
  • In Grade 2, 70% of learners achieved above 50%, compared to 68% in 2012.
  • In Grade 3, 59% of learners achieved above 50%, compared to 36% in 2012.
  • In Grade 4, 27% of learners achieved above 50%, compared to 26% in 2012.
  • In Grade 5, 21% of learners achieved above 50%, compared to 16% in 2012.
  • In Grade 6, 27% of learners achieved above 50%, compared to 11% in 2012.
  • In Grade 9, 3% of learners achieved above 50%, compared to 2% in 2012.

 As can be seen from these figures, the majority of learners in South Africa, especially in Grade 9, are considered low achievers.

Another indication of the overall level of achievement of South African learners is the number of learners who have to repeat a school year. In 2011, 1. 2 million (11.1 %) of the 11 062 399 learners in the South African school system 2011 had to repeat their school year (Van Wyk, 2012).

In an email response to this question, Phumla Satyo, Acting Chief Director: Curriculum Development wrote that “low achievement for schools are regarded as pass rates below 50% in the subject.” However, “for learners the target for satisfactory achievement is 40% as this is the minimum requirement for entry into a tertiary institution to study sciences.”

How are these students identified and at what age?

Our interpretation of this question is that it relates to individual students. However, as will be seen below, the identification of  low achievement in South African schools focuses more on whole school achievement.

The ANAs are, among other things, used to identify low achievers. They are administered in Gr 1- 6 and Gr 9, with plans to roll out testing for Gr 7 and 8 learners.

The ANAs are intended to be used on two levels – to identify low achieving learners and low achieving schools – although in most cases they are used to identify low achieving schools. According to Nicky Roberts, primary mathematics specialist, via a post to our blog, this is because so manyof the lower grade teachers do not know how to do item analysis and to determine, for example, the percentage of learners passing a particular question. Even though reporting on items of weakness is required by some provincial departments of education, the normal interpretation of results is on what the individual learner attained (and no consideration for what a particular item reveals about areas of weakness). This means that many teachers are not able to use the ANAs to plan interventions or adjust their teaching strategies.

On the other hand, good teachers can usually identify the ‘at risk’ learners even without the help of the ANAs. Anecdotal evidence suggets that even when these at risk learners are identified, however, they are often promoted to the next grade. This seems to happen for a number of practical reasons and it appears that policy or published guidance for teachers does not provide advice related to specific interventions consequent to their identification.

In the same email response referred to above, Phumla Satyo writes that once low performing schools have been identified, they are

“are targeted for focussed interventions to improve results.  These interventions are normally training sessions for teachers in the content that seems problematic in their diagnostic report and extra tuition for learners in the form of after school or Saturday tutorial sessions and holiday classes.”

What are the consequent interventions?

There are many NGOs and institutes linked to universities that implement local and regional initiatives addressing low achievement in mathematics. AIMSSEC is one such institution. Initiatives include extra classes for learners and professional development for teachers.

One wide ranging regional initiative is the broadcasting of lessons by experienced teachers to schools across one province. The provincial education department identified suitable teachers and a local university provided the infrastructure to broadcast the lessons. The lessons are aimed at learners in Gr 12 and mathematics is one of the subjects taught.

On a national level, the DBE has reported on a set of interventions aimed at the school system as a whole. The General Education System Quality Assessment Country Report (2013) outlines these:

quality assessment

“Three major initiatives aimed at improving quality in the poorly performing part of the education system were introduced in 2011: The Annual National Assessments (discussed in detail elsewhere in this report), the Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statements (also discussed elsewhere) and the national workbooks initiative.”

The numeracy component of the ANAs is a national initiative to identify low achievement in mathematics as a first step in supporting teachers and learners to improve in mathematics. The ANAs have been discussed in more detail in the introduction and when answering other questions.

The Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statements (CAPS) was also referred to in the introduction and one of the major issues addressed through its implementation is the limited extent to which the curriculum is covered by most teachers. To address this, the CAPS specify what topics need to be covered each term and how much time is to be spent on each topic. One consequence of this is that teachers are required to move on from topic to topic week by week whether the learners understand the concepts or not.

In 2013 the government also implemented a new procedure for the publishing of textbook. Previously schools could select from any of the textbooks that were published but currently textbooks are assessed before publication and only those deemed “CAPS aligned” are published. These textbooks all specify what need to be taught each week.

As mentioned above, a major concern in South Africa is that teachers omit large parts of the curriculum. The national workbook initiative was implemented in 2013 and aimed to ensure that teachers cover more of the curriculum as can be seen in this quote from the introduction to the workbooks:

“The Rainbow Workbooks form part of the Department of Basic Education’s range of interventions aimed at improving the performance of South African learners in the first six grades… We hope that teachers will find these workbooks useful in their everyday teaching and in ensuring that their learners cover the curriculum. We have taken care to guide the teacher through each of the activities by the inclusion of icons that indicate what it is that the learner should do”.

This initiative has had some problems, however. The first edition of the workbooks was full of errors which have not been corrected in the second edition. There are also some districts in which teachers have been told to use the workbooks exclusively (i.e. not to use textbooks) where the original intention of the workbooks was to provide an additional resource and not to be the primary resource