Educational studies have become an important part of a national conversation about the state of the country’s education. South Africa is not alone. Across the world, decision makers in countries (at different stages of development) want to know what works in the education system and what needs to be improved. Equally important to them is how the schooling system is changing over time. South Africa’s education system during the Apartheid era was designed to be separate and unequal. Thus, a crucial goal of assessments after 1994 was to monitor whether historical differences in the system were shifting in the right direction.

Some educational assessments are international in that many other countries around the world, including South Africa, take part. There are advantages to gaining an international perspective. South African researchers can learn from international experts about the best ways of assessing the education system and this knowledge can be used in other research studies. As reported results are based on data from all learners across participating countries, local policy makers have the opportunity to compare South African learners to their peers elsewhere. Most of the educational assessments carried out since 1994 have been international. There have been five rounds of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), three rounds of the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), and three rounds of the Southern and Eastern Africa Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality (SACMEQ) Survey.

There are interesting similarities and differences in these assessments that are worth mentioning. Whereas TIMSS and PIRLS involve countries from various parts of the world, SACMEQ is exclusive to African countries. The subject focus of TIMSS is learner mathematics and science. PIRLS assesses learner reading literacy and SACMEQ assesses mathematics, reading and knowledge of HIV and AIDS among both learners and teachers. All three have involved learners at the primary school level. In addition to primary school learners, TIMSS has provided information on secondary school learners.

In other instances, educational studies have been national. The advantage of a national perspective is that the design of the study can focus on the local curriculum in greater detail. The first of these to be conducted in South Africa was the systemic evaluation of learners in Grades 3 and 6 that took place in 2001, 2004 and 2007. This was followed by a national assessment of Grade 9 learners in 2009. Between 2011 and 2014, South Africa carried out four annual national assessments of learners in Grade 1 to 7, and 9.



Assessment Description Grades Subjects Years Region Conducted by
Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) Assessment of the mathematics and science knowledge of learners Grade 5

Grade 8/9





1995 (Gr 8)

1999 (Gr 8)

2003 (Gr 8 & 9)

2011 (Gr 9)

2015 (Gr 5 Numeracy & Gr 9)

World IEA

(Human Sciences Research Council in South Africa)

Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) Assessment that measures student learning in reading Grade 4

Grade 5



Reading literacy 2006 (Gr 4 & 5)

2011 (Gr 4 prePIRLS & Gr 5)

2016 (Gr 4 PIRLS Literacy & Gr 5)

World IEA

(Centre for Evaluation and Assessment, University of Pretoria  in South Africa)

Monitoring Learning Achievement (MLA) Project Assessment of learners’ achievement in numeracy and literacy, as well as life skills Grade 4 Numeracy


Life skills

1999 World Department of Education, supported by UNESCO and UNICEF
Southern and Eastern Africa Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality (SACMEQ) Survey Assessment on reading and mathematics achievement levels Grade 6 Mathematics





Southern and Eastern Africa SACMEQ and UNESCO’s International Institute for Educational Planning (IIEP)
Annual National Assessment (ANA) Standardised national assessments Grades 1-7

Grade 9



(Grades 1-3)




(Grades 4-7, 9)

2011 (Gr 2-7)

2012 (Gr 1-6 & 9)

2013 (Gr 1-6 & 9)

2014 (Gr 1-6 & 9)

South Africa Department of Basic Education (DBE)
Systemic Evaluation study Assessment of learners at the foundation and intermediate phases Grade 3

Grade 6





Life skills

(Grade 3)




Natural Sciences

(Grade 6)

2001 (Gr 3)

2004 (Gr 6)

2007 (Gr 3)


South Africa Department of Education
National Assessment Learner Achievement (NALA) Baseline assessment of learner achievement in Language, Mathematics and Natural Sciences, Grade 9 Language


Natural Sciences

2009 South Africa Human Sciences Research Council, supported by the Royal Netherlands Embassy


Much has been learned in 20 years of assessing South Africa’s education system. Learner performance has not improved as quickly as expected and there are some worrying trends about the climate of learning that learners are exposed to. There are also important exceptions that have emerged from these studies that emphasise how excellence in education can take many different shapes and forms.

Looking ahead requires thinking carefully about how the results from South African assessments can best be used to inform educational change. Also worth keeping in mind is the culture of assessments in general. After all, in their simplest form, assessments are carried out on a daily basis in classrooms and homes across the country when teachers or parents review children’s understanding of the material that has been taught. This information is valuable and needs to be part of a broader discussion on performance. The bottom line is that whatever form assessments take, and whether the results are good or bad, without this feedback, it would be impossible to plan an informed course for the educational future of our country.


Authors: Tia Linda Zuze, Head of Research

                Financial Sector Deepening Zambia (FSDZ)


               Sylvia Hannan, Researcher

.              Education and Skills Development research programme of the HSRC