South African school pupils have performed dismally in the latest Trends in International Maths and Science Study (TIMSS) study, casting harsh light on the quality of basic education.

Grade 9 and grade 5 pupils came second last in maths, while grade 9s were at the bottom of the pile in science, trailing other African countries like Botswana and Morocco. Grade 5s did not participate in the science tests.

TIMSS is an in-depth assessment of the teaching of mathematics and science, and is conducted every four years. The results of the 2015 tests, which were conducted in 60 countries, were released online on Tuesday. The tests are administered to grade 4 and grade 8 pupils in most countries, but in SA they are done by pupils in grades 9 and 5 instead.

As SA has participated in the study since 1999, the trends in its performance provide a gauge of the health of the education system and help policy makers design interventions to try and improve it.

The latest results show a slight improvement in grade 9 pupils’ science and maths scores since 2011. However, they still failed to achieve the low benchmark score of 400. This means their grasp of even simple concepts like graphs and whole numbers is weak and they struggle to apply their knowledge.

Grade 9 science pupils scored 358, compared to 332 in 2011, while maths pupils scored 372 compared to 352 in 2011.

Top-scoring Singapore grade eight students scored 621 in maths, and 597 in science.

Around 12, 500 South African pupils and 330 maths and science teachers from 292 schools participated in the study according to the South African Human Sciences Research Council.

SA came last in the tests in 1999 and 2003, and pulled out of the tests in 2007 for fear that local students would perform badly again. It rejoined in 2011, and sat the tests again last year.

Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga was expected to give a press briefing on the results later on Tuesday.

TIMSS is run by the non-profit International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA).

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