The maths performance of Grade Nine pupils is cause for concern, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga said on Monday.
"In Grade Nine mathematics, the average performance is 13 percent. Provincial performance ranges between nine percent and 17 percent," she said.
Motshekga was releasing the annual national assessment (ANA) 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).
She said that in Grade Three, the national average performance in literacy was 52 percent this year, compared to 35 percent in 2011.
"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 ranges between 46 percent and 57 percent."
She said in Grade Three numeracy, pupils were now performing at an average of 41 percent, compared to 28 percent in 2011.
"[Again], great improvement of 13 percent, 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."
Provincial performance ranged between 34 percent and 47 percent, and was highest in Gauteng and the Western Cape.
In Grade Six, the national average performance in language this year was 43 percent (home language) and 36 percent (first additional language), compared to 28 percent in 2011.
"This is an improvement of 15 percent in home language, putting us on track with our 60 percent target of 2014," said Motshekga.
She said in 2011, first additional language was not assessed and that this year's result would act as a benchmark moving forward.
"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."
Provincial performance in home language ranged between 28 percent and 52 percent, and was highest in the Free State. Provincial performance in first additional language ranged between 31 percent and 43 percent.
In Grade Six maths, the average performance in 2012 was 27 percent, compared to 30 percent last year.
Provincial performance ranged between 21 percent and 33 percent.
"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 percent (home language) and 35 percent (first additional language).
Provincial performance in home language ranged between 31 percent and 50 percent, and that in first additional language ranged between 30 percent and 40 percent.
"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."
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 whilst 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 Grade 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 annual 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."