Kiwi students are good performers compared to their OECD counterparts but beneath the headline figures is a concerning downward trend across key subject areas, wellbeing and equity.

The Programme for International Student Achievement (PISA) report is an OECD triennial study of 15-year-old students, which measures science, maths and wellbeing.

While New Zealand continues to do relatively well academically, scores have been steadily slipping. Meanwhile, bullying remains a significant issue, and instances of bullying have increased.

At a glance equity looks better, with the gap between those at the top and the bottom closing. However, this had been achieved by the top performers falling, rather than the bottom being lifted up.

The Ministry of Education deputy secretary of evidence, data and knowledge, Craig Jones, said while these were issues directly relating to students and schools, there was a correlation between some of the concerning results and wider societal attitudes and trends.

There is much work ongoing in education policy, with many reviews, programmes and action plans geared towards targeting these areas where students are struggling. However, it takes a long time for policy to bed in and for results to be seen in the classroom, he said.

This also meant if policy was not working, or was having adverse impacts – as it had in the past – it would take a while to identify.

Concerning attitudes towards reading

New Zealand does relatively well when it comes to reading (8 out of 36) and science (7 out of 37), compared to other OECD countries. In maths, New Zealand 15 year olds sit around the OECD average, with our country ranking 22nd out of 37 countries.

However, there has been a concerning downward trend – in all three areas – since the study began in the early 2000s.

This is paired with a greater proportion of students in the lowest performing categories, and fewer in the top performing categories.

While there was no statistically significant decline between the 2018 data and the results from the last survey round in 2015, over time scores have dropped significantly, with the biggest drop occurring between the 2009 and 2012 results.

Since 2000, 15-year-old Kiwi students dropped 23 points in reading scores, according to PISA. This was the equivalent of about two-thirds of a year worth of learning (roughly 30 points equates to a year worth of learning.)

Sitting behind that were some very concerning attitudes, said Jones.

A significantly larger portion of 15 year olds said they did not read for enjoyment, and only read if they had to.

A total of 52 percent of students surveyed said they only read if they had to, and 52 percent also said they only read to get the info they need.

There was also a growing number who said they did not read for enjoyment. A higher percentage of boys said they never read books (40 percent), they did not read for enjoyment (51 percent) and they only read if they had to (60 percent).

Jones said New Zealand’s teaching methods for reading skills had not changed measurably since 2000, and there was an opportunity to learn from what other countries were doing.

This was also an issue that needed to be addressed from a young age, with a strong grounding in reading and literacy skills, and a fostering of enthusiasm.

Anecdotally, Jones pointed to social media, videos and video games as entertainment that drew young people away from books, adding that families also had a part to play in getting kids back into reading.

Equity issues remain

Historically, New Zealand has had significantly inequitable education outcomes.

Newsroom has written extensively about this problem, which disproportionately affects Māori and Pasifika kids, and it was a core focus of the Tomorrow’s Schools review.

That equity gap remained stubborn, Jones said.

While a brief glance at the PISA results showed the gap between girls and boys (in reading), and between those in high socio-economic and low socio-economic households, had declined.

“This is a measure of equity, but it’s not necessarily the way we want to achieve equity.”

However, closer reading showed the narrowing of the gap was due to the top falling, rather than the bottom rising.

“This is a measure of equity, but it’s not necessarily the way we want to achieve equity,” Jones said.

New Zealand’s equity issue has not shifted.

However, there have been small trend changes showing some students from lower socio-economic households are punching above their weight, and bucking the trend.

It is also worth noting New Zealand has a more equitable schooling system than many other countries, which is borne out in where the inequities occurred.

For New Zealand, the biggest gaps between top and bottom achievers were within the same schools, not between different schools. This showed New Zealand does not have so-called ‘winner’ and ‘loser’ schools, Jones said.

Wellbeing and bullying

Bullying continues to be a disturbing fixture in New Zealand schools.

There was a rise in the number of 15-year-olds who were bullied between the 2015 survey and 2018.

New Zealand is known for its high rates of bullying. And while there are bullying prevention action plans in place, ERO found not all schools were implementing the plans.

Last time round, New Zealand ranked the second worst in the world for bullying, behind Latvia. In 2018, New Zealand had improved its ranking to fifth, but that was due to more countries measuring bullying.

Jones said the rise in bullying was underpinned by statistically significant rises in the proportions of students who, at least a few times a month, had been made fun of (up 6 percentage points to 23 percent), hit or pushed around (up 2 percentage points to 9 percent), or threatened by other students (up 2 percentage points to 10 percent).

There was also a decline in the number of 15-year-olds who said they had not experienced bullying.

The survey showed boys were bullied more than girls, and it also showed the sense of belonging was falling for all student groups, with a sharp rise in the number of students who said they felt like an outsider.

This was not unique to New Zealand, and again Jones pointed to social media as a potential driver: in 2009 a quarter of students chatted online daily, versus three-quarters in 2018.

However, a very high proportion of students (92 percent) had negative views of bullying.

Other factors affecting wellbeing are the classroom climate, where there were difficult behavioral issues and a lack of concentration, as well as students coming to school later or not at all.

Jones said research had found there was no safe level of truancy.

Some positives

While the PISA report painted a rather dismal picture, there were some positive aspects for New Zealand.

New Zealand students felt well-supported by their teachers and their parents, and a high proportion of students had a growth mindset (two out of three).

A growth mindset was when students believe intelligence could change. The belief people could grow their intelligence had the strongest relationship to achievement in New Zealand.

However, mindsets did not change quickly, and experts spoke about the need to create a wider ‘growth mindset environment’ within a school.

“All students need to feel a sense of belonging to thrive.”

The National Monitoring Study of Student Achievement (NMSSA), a New Zealand-run study that was also released on Tuesday, showed more positive trends for maths and social studies.

However, this survey that measured achievement at the critical points of year four and year eight, showed there was a decline as students got older.

This showed the importance of building a strong foundation at a young age, and working to retain and build on those skills, so as not to have issues in later years.

Policy problems

There are a range of current policy initiatives that the ministry, and the Education Minister, believe can improve some of these concerning trends and results.

These are the implementation of the Tomorrow’s Schools review, the Learning Support Action Plan and rollout of learning support coordinators, the Bullying Prevention Response, Curriculum Progress and Achievement, and both the Māori education plan and the Pacific education plan.

While there is a lot of hope being pinned on this work, policy failures could have a detrimental impact on student achievement, attitudes and wellbeing.

Chris Hipkins put a lot of the blame for the poor results on National Standards. However, the pressure was now on him to make sure a raft of new policies have a positive impact on students, schools and teachers. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Minister of Education Chris Hipkins said the main takeaway from the results was that National Standards was a failure.

“These are the students it was meant to help.”

The “obsession” with narrow measurement over actual teaching and learning was “a huge waste of resources, and a big burden and distraction for teachers and students”.

Drilling students to read in a high-stakes environment, rather than for enjoyment, didn’t work, he said.

On the subject of wellbeing, Hipkins said the Government was taking bullying and student disengagement seriously.

“All students need to feel a sense of belonging to thrive.”

As Jones said, there were obviously wider societal issues at play in regards to some of the outcomes, but Hipkins said the Government also had the ability to intervene when it came to growing, valuing and better equipping the workforce; supporting schools; improving wellbeing; and lifting Māori achievement.

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