Pupils in the country's rural schools remain disadvantaged by absent resources, and that is why they performed worse than their urban counterparts.
Results from two international assessments, Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) and Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), released on Tuesday, show pupils in rural public schools performed worse than their urban counterparts in languages, mathematics and science. But, overall, the performance of South African pupils in these international benchmarking assessments remain at rock bottom of the study rankings.
Bullying also emerged as a factor to blame for poor performance of the country's pupils. At least 55% of grade four pupils "report frequent bullying at primary school, the highest internationally", said the PIRLS study.
On a scale of 0 to 1 000, pupils tested for English and Afrikaans in grade five achieved a score of 421, described in the PIRLS report as "the lowest for benchmarking participants". The study was conducted in 49 countries.
According to the PIRLS report, 43% of grade five pupils in South African schools have not developed the basic skills required for reading at an equivalent international grade four level.
Sarah Howie, director of the Centre for Evaluation and Assessment and research coordinator for PIRLS in South Africa, told the Mail & Guardian at the launch that poor performance of rural schools explained why parents now preferred to relocate their children to urban areas for education.
"Parents know these things," Howie said. "Parents are smart. They are looking for the best opportunities for their children. What we need to do is actually address problems in the rural schools."
The TIMSS study assessed pupils in 45 countries at the grade eight level in maths and science assessments, but South African as well as Botswana and Honduran pupils were tested at the grade nine level. "All three [countries] continued to demonstrate low performance at this level, for both mathematics and science," said the TIMSS report.
But South Africa achieved a marginal improvement in the latest TIMSS results when compared to 2006. While the country's score was 285 points in 2002, it stands at 352 at the current results.
"South African performance is still at the low end, but has improved since 2002," said Vijay Reddy, executive director at the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC). The organisation conducted TIMSS in the country and tested almost 19 000 pupils in 256 public schools and 27 independent schools.
But, "as expected", rural schools with the lowest resources achieved lower scores, said Reddy. "If you improve those schools you improve the national scores. It's expected that the former Model C schools are the best performers."
Pupils in the Western Cape, Gauteng and Northern Cape performed better in the TIMSS assessment. The three lowest performers were KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo and the Eastern Cape. "We'd like to see some provinces perform to achieve education equity," Reddy said.
Schools need resources to improve pupil performance, Howie said. In 2006 many primary schools in the country were without libraries, "six years later 59% of the schools still do not have libraries", Howie pointed out. This figure represents the second highest percentage internationally after Morocco.
"Schools can make a huge difference if they are prepared and well resourced," said Howie.
Referring to marginal score improvement in maths and science, John Volmink, a well-known academic who was programme director at the launch, said the country's basic education was now showing signs of improvement.
"Allow the data to speak," Volmink said, before warning against "negativity". "There is hope, and for me hope is a belief that things can get better. These results tell things are getting better,"
Volmink added that these "results are complex because we're looking at a complex [issue]. We have to engage with the complexities [of education]."
The basic education department said the results showed there were some improvements. "We are certainly not where we should be, but it's showing progress," deputy minister Enver Surty told the conference.
For Carole Bloch, the "results reinforce what everybody knows [that] language has to be understandable and children who are bullied cannot learn properly. What's positive is that we all know what has to be done."
The government should now set "realistic" targets for improvements, Reddy said. "We can never reach the level of Singapore right now, so we need to be realistic."