This low score was one of several revealed in the delayed 2011 Annual National Assessment (ANA) results, released by Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga in Pretoria on Tuesday.
The assessment includes numeracy and literacy tests conducted among six million so-called foundation phase (grades 1 - 3) and intermediate phase (grades 4 – 6) pupils attending government schools.
The tests took place in February, after pupils had completed the previous year's grade work.
According to the document, Grade 6 results for language - based on a sample of results from selected schools - show that as few as 15% of pupils scored more than 50%.
Among Grade 3 pupils, only 17% scored more than 50% in their numeracy assessment, and 31% scored more than 50% in the literacy test.
Make or break
Motshekga said the ANA was the most wide-ranging assessment of literacy and numeracy skills among young pupils ever carried out in South Africa.
Noting that a pupil's first five years at school were a "make or break" watershed in his or her development, she said the assessment showed there had been an under-emphasis in education on basic skills such as reading, writing and arithmetic.
Spelling out some of the assessment's results, which she described as "very sad", she said that among Grade 3 pupils, the national average performance in literacy was 35%; and in numeracy, 28%.
"Provincial performance in these two areas is between 19% and 43%, the highest being the Western Cape and the lowest being Mpumalanga."
Turning to the assessment of Grade 6 pupils, she said the national average performance in languages was 28%, and for mathematics 30%.
"The performance is something that we expected, given the poor performance of South African learners in recent international and local assessments.
"But now we have our own benchmarks against which we can set targets and move forward," Motshekga said.
According to a document handed to journalists at the event, a very small percentage of pupils qualified as "outstanding" in the assessment.
Girls out-perform boys
Among Grade 3 pupils, 11% achieved this in literacy, and 5% in numeracy. Among Grade 6 pupils, only 3% achieved this in both language and mathematics.
A gender comparison reveals that girls generally out-perform boys across the ranges assessed, and particularly at the top level.
One glimmer of good news among the ANA results was the relatively better performance of Grade 1 and 2 pupils.
The document attributes this, among other things, to the recent introduction of standardised learning material for Grade R pupils, and interventions at the foundation phase level to improve literacy and numeracy.
Motshekga said her department was moving to address the problems.
"While there is no quick fix, we are confident that our interventions will bear fruit in the years to come..."
She said there appeared to be "far too big a leap" between grades 3 and 4.
"This may account for the drop in results that we see as children move up the grades."
From next year, there would be fewer subjects in grades 4 to 6.
"The jump from Grade 3 to Grade 4 is [also] made more difficult with the switch to English in Grade 4," she said.
The ANA results were supposed to have been released on April 29 but, according to a statement issued by the department at that time, this was not possible because it was "still in the process of capturing results from all districts in the country".