The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study: Measuring the health of our education system


Over the last two decades, South Africa has made significant progress in transforming the education system and improving access to schools. Unfortunately, significant challenges remain, with vast numbers of primary school learners not becoming sufficiently literate and numerate to reach their potential. Mathematics and science pose a particular challenge. Dr Vijay Reddy writes about the HSRC’s contribution to the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), a series of international assessments of the mathematics and science knowledge of students, globally.

Experts believe that academic performance in subjects related to science, technology, engineering and mathematics is an indication of the future economic strength of a country. Learning these subjects develops cognitive- reasoning abilities that equip students to navigate their way through life. In South Africa, the lack of skills in these subjects contributes to social inequalities of access to further education and income.

The HSRC first conducted TIMSS in South Africa in 1995 and again in 1999 and 2003. The Department of Basic Education supported the TIMSS 2011 study and subsequently adopted its achievement measures as an indicator of the performance of the educational system. TIMSS is now embedded in the department’s monitoring and evaluation framework, and the HSRC was commissioned to conduct TIMSS in 2015 and in 2019. Table 1 provides a summary of how the findings of the study deepened our understanding of the education system over time.


Indication of improvement
Our research has shown that from 1995 to 2015 the quality of education improved by close to one standard deviation (Figure 1). We also calculated the changed achievement for countries who participated in TIMSS 2003 and 2015; and South Africa showed the biggest improvement (starting from a low base).


Figure 1: Difference in TIMSS mathematics achievement scores from 2003 to 2015

Potential impact
HSRC researchers have used the TIMSS data to identify leverage points where better investments may have the most impact on achievement scores. Examples include ways to harness the positive effect of being taught in a home language and the value of early stimulation at home. Other factors that played a role in learners’ performance in mathematics and science include school resources, textbook provision, bullying, and teacher challenges, as well as specific school and individual characteristics that contribute to learner resilience and confidence in these subjects (Table 2).


Author: Dr Vijay Reddy, distinguished research specialist at the HSRC and national research co-ordinator of TIMSS South Africa |