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OECD Report consigns New Zealand to back bench


Praneeta Mahajan
Hamilton, December 8, 2023

New Zealand has recorded its worst-ever results in the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests of reading, maths and science, as the country’s 15-year-olds’ average scores dropped a disastrous 15 points in maths to 479 points. Their science and reading scores fell just 4-5 points to 504 and 501 points respectively, and the gap between rich and poor students grew even wider than ever before.

About the programme

PISA has run every three years since 2000. About 4700 New Zealand 15-year-olds from 169 schools sat the tests in term three last year. Internationally, 690,000 students took the assessment.

All of the 37 nations of the OECD that participated recorded the average performance drop equivalent to about three-quarters of a year of learning in maths and half a year in reading with countries including the Netherlands and Finland experiencing drops of more than 20 points, equivalent to a year’s education.

Singapore had the highest average scores in all three subjects, while New Zealand’s results showed a decrease in high performers and an increase in low performers over the past 20 years in all three subjects.

The effect was strongest in maths where the percentage of low performers increased from 15% of New Zealand 15-year-olds in 2003 to 29% in 2022 while the percentage of high performers dropped from 21 to 10% in the same period.

New Zealand students were also less confident about their ability to solve maths and science problems than they were in the 2012 assessment. The report stated that Maths anxiety had increased with 67% worrying they would get poor marks in maths and 40% said that they felt helpless when doing a maths problem.

The pandemic impact

The OECD’s PISA report said the Covid-19 pandemic was to be blamed, in part, for the poor results.

“No change in the OECD average over consecutive PISA assessments up to 2018 has ever exceeded four points in mathematics and five points in reading: in PISA 2022, however, the OECD average dropped by almost 15 points in mathematics and about 10 score points in reading compared to PISA 2018. Mean performance in science, however, remained stable. The unprecedented drops in mathematics and reading point to the shock effect of Covid-19 on most countries,” the PISA report said.

Education researcher Nina Hood from the University of Auckland and the Education Hub said New Zealand’s result was disappointing but not surprising given the disruption caused by the pandemic.

“We can suggest the pandemic has had some impact, but that is not the only thing going on.”

Dr Hood said New Zealand’s scores had been declining for some time, especially between 2009 and 2012, and the latest results were consistent with other recent measures of student achievement.

The results showed that two-thirds of countries closed their schools for longer than three months for a majority of their students during the Covid-19 pandemic. In New Zealand, 42% of students reported more than three months of closures due to Covid.

During remote learning, 40% of students in New Zealand had problems at least once a week with understanding school assignments and 28% had problems finding someone who could help them with schoolwork compared to OECD averages of 34% and 24% respectively.

Distracted students

The survey found that 46% of New Zealand students get distracted using digital devices in class (OECD average: 30%) and 40% get distracted by other students using digital devices (OECD average: 25%).

“The amount of time spent on digital devices at school also seems to have an effect. While learning outcomes were often better for students who used digital devices for learning between one to five hours a day than for those who never used them, students who used them more than an hour a day for leisure – social media apps, browsing the internet or games – saw a big drop in maths scores,” the report said.

The survey found that 46% of New Zealand students get distracted using digital devices in class (OECD average of 30%) and 40% get distracted by other students using digital devices (OECD average of 25%).

“The amount of time spent on digital devices at school also seems to have an effect. While learning outcomes were often better for students who used digital devices for learning between one to five hours a day than for those who never used them, students who used them more than an hour a day for leisure, social media apps, browsing the internet or games, saw a big drop in maths scores,” the report said.

The government is committed to lifting school achievement in the basics, starting with removing distractions so young people can focus on their learning, Education Minister Erica Stanford said recently.

“These results reinforce our government’s focus on removing distractions like cell phone use in the classroom to ensure young people receive the quality education they deserve that lets them live the life that they want. There is clear evidence that removing distractions like cell phone use has a positive impact on student achievement and well-being, and the government is wasting no time.”

“In our first 100 days, we will ban cell phone use during the school day for all students so they can focus on their learning. This is just the first part of the Government’s plan to teach the basics brilliantly and equip students with the building blocks they need to achieve their potential.”

Poverty plays a role

New Zealand’s results also highlighted that the gap between rich and poor students had widened and a relatively high proportion of New Zealand students went hungry each week.

The average score for the richest 25% of New Zealand students was 102 points higher than the average for the poorest 25%.

The report said socioeconomic status accounted for 16% of the variation in students’ maths performance in New Zealand, compared to 15% for the OECD average, and 9% of disadvantaged New Zealand students scored in the top quarter of maths performance.

It found that 14% of New Zealand students reported not eating at least once a week in the past 30 days due to a lack of money to buy food, compared to the OECD average of 8%.

Praneeta Mahajan is an Indian Newslink reporter based in Hamilton.

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