Why South Africa's declining maths performance is a worry

10 January 2020 | Story Suellen Shay. Photo Pixapopz.
Strong performance in mathematics is essential for careers in computing, programming, finance and machine learning – the way of the future.
Strong performance in mathematics is essential for careers in computing, programming, finance and machine learning – the way of the future.

South Africa’s Department of Basic Education recently released the country’s National Senior Certificate results for the class of 2019. These are commonly known as the “matric results” and they determine school-leavers’ admission and placement into tertiary level study. About 81.3% of those who wrote the matriculation exams passed. There has been much well-deserved celebration of this achievement of the highest post-apartheid national matric pass rate.

What the country is not hearing about from the Minister of Basic Education, Angie Motshekga, is the drop in performance in mathematics. It is one of the “gateway” subjects, subjects which are considered critical for the country’s economic growth and development.

This decline can be measured in two ways. There is a reduction in the number of students writing mathematics from 270,516 in 2018 to 222,034 in 2019. The second measure is the performance: only 54% of the pupils who wrote the exam passed it. This pass rate is down from 58% in 2018. The minimum score for a pass is 30%. This means only 54% of mathematics exam candidates achieved a mark of at least 30%. Of all the maths candidates only 2% (4,415) achieved distinctions. A distinction is a score of 80%-100%. This is down from 2.5% in 2018.

Why does this matter?

The drop in numbers of pupils writing the grade 12 mathematics exam should be of great concern. Performance in mathematics matters for university entrance. Without it, school leavers are not eligible for programmes at university in science or engineering or some in commerce. A decline signals the closing of the doors of opportunity in these fields to a growing number of students. This will only increase inequality. Economics researcher Nic Spaull’s research has shown that the top 200 high schools in the country produce 97% of the mathematics distinctions. The majority of these schools charge significant fees.

The deterioration in performance is also of great concern. Getting a pass (30%) may secure a diploma or university entrance but these low pass marks will not prepare students to succeed at mathematics at university level.

This development runs contrary to the needs of the fourth industrial revolution, which requires highly competent graduates in the science, technology, engineering and maths areas. Strong performance in mathematics is essential for careers in computing, programming, finance and machine learning.

Universities need to shoulder the blame

Universities cannot absolve themselves of this national challenge. At the University of Cape Town data from the Courses Impeding Graduation project is being analysed to better understand incoming students’ challenges, specifically in courses like Mathematics 1.

In this course a worrying pattern of performance emerged. A minimum mark of 70% for maths in matric is needed to get into Mathematics 1 at the university. Based on several years of data, an average of 33% of students fail this course. Those students who enter with a 90% mark for maths in matric score a pass in Mathematics 1 with an average mean of 64%. Those students who achieved between 80% and 89% in matric fail the course with an average mean of 47%. Those who achieved between 70% and 79% in matric fail with an average mean of 43%.

Unless a student achieved a distinction for mathematics at school level they are at risk of failing it at university level. Students who fail Mathematics 1 will inevitably take longer to complete their degree and are at higher risk of being excluded from the university.

Dealing with the problem

The University of Cape Town is taking responsibility for its share in these dismal results. A number of interventions have been put in place over recent years to provide additional support to students. These include “maths labs”, Saturday workshops, and even providing multilingual resources to support students who are not yet fluent in the medium of instruction.

Expert maths teachers have been appointed to lecture this challenging course. But the overall failure rates of approximately one third of the class have remained stubbornly in place. A decision was taken in 2019 to revise the Mathematics 1 curriculum to ensure a greater alignment between schooling and university curriculum.

This kind of curriculum review raises a number of complex issues: what is the appropriate content to ensure a relatively seamless transition from school maths to university maths? Do different disciplinary areas like actuarial science, chemistry and engineering need different kinds of mathematics courses? How can the pacing of the curriculum accommodate different learning needs? How can educational technology support innovative forms of teaching and learning mathematics? These are global issues, not unique to South Africa.

The national euphoria around the national pass rate means nothing if it hides problems such as declining mathematics performance.The Conversation

Suellen Shay, Professor, University of Cape Town.

This article was published in The Conversation, a collaboration between editors and academics to provide informed news analysis and commentary. Its content is free to read and republish under Creative Commons; media who would like to republish this article should do so directly from its appearance on The Conversation, using the button in the right-hand column of the webpage. UCT academics who would like to write for The Conversation should register with them; you are also welcome to find out more from lisa.boonzaier@uct.ac.za..

Comment from Dr Jonathan Shock, UCT Department of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics

Hi Suellen, thank you for this. There are a couple of points that should be noted from within the Mathematics department. Indeed it has been clear for some time that there are major issues which the Courses Impeding Graduation project have highlighted and it has really given us a detailed understanding of these problems. The coming months are going to be devoted to putting in place a plan for how to solve this, so it is certainly too early to say that the curriculum for the first year mainstream mathematics course is going to change. That may be the case, but we want to plan this carefully rather than suddenly making large changes without understand the potential consequences. There are other options on the table which we are considering and we will be discussing these options with all parties involved, as well as with experts from other departments around the world.

It should also be noted that Engineers do already do a different course than that of Actuarial Science students and over the last year there has been great success in making a course specific to Computer Science students. We are looking into how this may be further expanded.

For those who know the system, Mathematics 1 in this article corresponds to the first year course for science and actuarial science students (MAM1000W, as well as that course taken over a two year period).

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