On Monday the Mail & Guardian reported the national assessment results showed that grade nine pupils scored a shocking maths average of 13%.
Provincial marks ranged between 9% and 17%, Motshekga said on Monday while releasing the assessment results in Tembisa, east of Johannesburg.
"These results explain to a very large extent why, among many other reasons, we have such high failure and dropout rates at grades 10 and 11."
Motshekga said the department was concerned that few pupils pursued maths and science in the further education and training phase, and that even those who had the potential to take these subjects did not.
"Among many other reasons, including the availability of teachers, is the fear of failing as they witness others not making the grade."
She said pupil performance in the foundation phase (grades one, two and three) was pleasing. There was also progress in the intermediate phase (grades four, five and six).
In grade three, the national average performance in literacy was 52% this year, compared to 35% in 2011, she said.
"I must say, this is extremely encouraging and should give South Africans great hope that at this rate we will reach, or even surpass, the targets we have set for ourselves. This is a big margin to achieve in a year by any standards. Provincial performance range between 46% and 57%."
She said in grade three numeracy, pupils were now performing at an average of 41% compared to 28% in 2011.
"[Again] great improvement of 13%, particularly noting our commitment to ensure that our learners pursue mathematics and science in later grades. This will help them build solid skills so that they can take these subjects with all the necessary confidence."
In grade six, the national average performance in language this year was 43% (home language) and 36% (first additional language), compared to 28% in 2011.
"This is an improvement of 15% in home language, putting us on track with our 60 percent target of 2014," said Motshekga.
Motshekga said first additional language was not assessed in 2011 and this year's result would act as a benchmark.
"Paying attention to first additional language is very important, because the challenge with our education system is that the majority of our learners who are black Africans study in a language which is not their first home language."
In grade six maths, the average performance in 2012 was 27%, compared to 30% last year.
"I guess this is also understandable, noting that improvements in mathematical skills require the acquisition of conceptual skills first for learners to make the necessary progress," Motshekga said.
In grade nine, the national average performance in language was 43% (home language) and 35% (first additional language).
"These, and the literacy results, are benchmark results. They also help us pay special attention to a very important phase in the system, the phase during and after which we lose many children, with very high dropout rates."
'Source of great hope'
Motshekga said in addition to the performance of grades four, five and nine in particular, more attention had to be paid to the lower end of the system.
"These improvements again are a source of great hope, because we are beginning to see improvements at the lower end of the system while we have to be concerned that the higher end seems to be stagnating," she said.
The Annual National Assessment is a testing programme which requires all schools to conduct the same, grade-specific language and maths tests for grades one to six and nine.
Motshekga said the choice of subjects to prioritise for monitoring was informed by the recognition, worldwide, that literacy and numeracy were key foundational skills which predisposed pupils to effective learning in all fields of knowledge.
She said the national assessment had exposed teachers across the country to what the national experts considered to be the best practice in assessments.
"This gives teachers a clearer idea of how to proceed when developing their own assessments at critical points in the school year." – Sapa