Spoilsports quietly rejoin global study

The South African government sulked when its schools twice came at the bottom of every African country to participate in the continuing global TIMSS study—formally known as the Trends in International Maths and Science Study.

So in 2007, the education department, then under Minister, Naledi Pandor, decided that the solution was to pull out of the widely acclaimed study, which tests learners in different countries at the same stage of schooling every four years.

By then South African children had come last in two successive studies, even behind African countries such as Ghana and other developing nations which spent far less of their budgets on education than South Africa.

No news would be better than bad news, apparently. So no South African pupils participated in the 2007 study on the grounds that they would be ‘over-tested”, Pandor said.

Now Angie Motshekga, the basic education minister, seems to have quietly reversed that decision, which was widely criticised at the time.

James Lorimer, the Democratic Alliance’s shadow deputy minister of basic education, issued a press release in March saying that re-joining TIMSS would be ‘an important step” in proving Motshekga’s ‘commitment to quality education”.

This week Lorimer’s response was ‘great news—it’s exactly the right step. Pulling us out of TIMSS was exactly the wrong response to poor performance. We have to benchmark ourselves.

‘TIMSS is a golden opportunity to obtain more insight into how South African children are coping,” he said. So next year South African pupils in grades four and eight will participate in the next TIMSS study.

It will be the fifth maths and science assessment, following surveys over 16 years from 1995 onwards. The only problem is that, because of the South African education department’s sulk, we will be unable to see whether we improved on our 2007 results—because there aren’t any.

More than 60 countries are expected to participate in the 2011 study. Participating countries from Africa include Botswana, Egypt, Ghana and Libya.

The study itself consists of an assessment of mathematics and science, as well as student, teacher and school questionnaires. The study is run by the independent non-profit International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA), which is based in the Netherlands and has been running since 1958.

IEA board members include Serara Moahi from the Botswana Examinations Council, which will host the organisation’s 51st general assembly in Gaborone in October this year.

Three South Africans will be the only African researchers speaking at the IEA’s fourth international research conference at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden from July 1 to July 3, which will be preceded by a two-day training workshop on secondary data analysis.

They are Professor Sarah Howie, Zelda Snyman and researcher Surette van Staden from the University of Pretoria education department’s Centre for Evaluation and Assessment.

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