Using a train timetable to work out how to get from one place to the next, adding tax to an item to work out the final price, or solving 6x²+5=29.
These are some of the basic math problems 15-year-old students in New Zealand are increasingly struggling with.
Such problems feature in the new Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) 2022 report, an international gauge on students’ maths, reading and science literacy in every OECD country, which shows significant drops in performance in maths and, to a lesser extent, science.
New Zealand students are still above the OECD average in all three subjects, but that’s also due to a crash in student performance in maths and reading across the OECD; 28 out of 37 OECD countries saw significant declines in maths.
The report also showed a fall in school bullying in New Zealand, though behavioural problems in classrooms are well above the OECD average, as is the proportion of students who aren’t eating enough because their households are too poor.
A majority of students are still comfortable with basic formal and applied maths problems, but confidence has slipped in the past decade, with the biggest drop for “understanding scientific tables presented in an article”, followed by “solving an equation like 6x²+5=29″.
Pisa 2022 is based on assessing and surveying 4700 students across 169 schools in term 3 of 2022. The questions covered all three subject areas, with a focus on maths.
The sample was overrepresented in higher-achieving students, meaning a potential bias of up to 10 points in the performance scores.
There is inherent uncertainty, but this means the average score of 479 points in maths could be as low as 469 points for all of the 15-year-old school population in New Zealand, which would put it below the OECD average of 472 points.
There are statistical caveats here too; the average OECD score includes eight other countries with evidence of bias, meaning the actual score across all OECD Pisa students could be below 472 points.
The report indicates a large “learning loss” across the OECD in maths and reading. This also makes the New Zealand reading score notable because it didn’t fall in a statistically significant way, bucking the OECD trend.
New Zealand's reading score fell but not as steeply as the OECD average. Source: Ministry of Education
New Zealand students remained above the OECD average in science, despite continuing a downward trend. Source: Ministry of Education
“Longer-term declines in proficiency are evident in a decrease of high performers and an increase in low performers. In maths, high performers have halved and low performers has [sic] doubled since 2003,” said the Ministry of Education’s Pisa report.
“Evidence points to [the] impact of Covid-19 (school closures, sickness, attendance). Since the OECD and many other countries also declined, a worldwide phenomenon is likely a factor.
“Term 3 of 2022 was a very stressful and challenging time. If declines persist in 2025, we will know more if this was a ‘blip’ in time or a longer-term issue.”
An Education Review Office report found that only 19 per cent of principals in 2023 believed their school had recovered from Covid-19 disruptions, almost half of the 37 per cent in 2021.
Familiar trends in national data
The falling Pisa trend in maths follows the data from the National Monitoring Study of Student Achievement - looking at Year 4 and Year 8 students - which showed “statistically significant declines in the average mathematics scores for girls, Māori learners and Pacific learners between 2018 and 2022″.
The stable Pisa trend in reading was also mirrored in NMSSA data, where reading scores had not changed significantly between 2014 and 2019. And the average NMSSA science scores didn’t change between 2012 and 2017, which appears to align with little movement in Pisa science scores between 2012 and 2018.
The Pisa report showed Māori and Pacific student performance falling faster than the New Zealand average in maths and science. Almost half - 47 per cent - of Māori students performed below the baseline Pisa level in maths in 2022, much higher than the 37 per cent in 2018.
Pacific student performance also fell further behind the national average in reading.
This trend follows the 2022 school leaver data, where the gap widened between Māori, Pacific and low-decile school students on the one hand, and everyone else on the other.
“The main result Pisa consistently shows is that if you are fortunate enough to be born into a financially comfortable family, you will do better academically,” said Post Primary Teachers Association acting president Chris Abercrombie.
“I hope the Government reads the writing on the Pisa wall and realises that if it is serious about improving educational achievement, the most important thing it can do is address the widening gap between the haves and have-nots in Aotearoa New Zealand.”
Māori student performance in maths fell more steeply than for the New Zealand average. Source: Ministry of Education
Almost half of Māori students performed below the baseline level in 2022. Source: Ministry of Education
Schools did well when Covid closed classrooms
New Zealand students reported higher teacher support and enjoyment of self-learning when schools were closed due to Covid, and they had better access to digital devices and the internet than the OECD average.
Schools also appeared to do more than the OECD average to sustain learning during school closures, but students also reported lower motivation to learn; 53 per cent fell behind, while half of them were anxious about school work.
The impact of the pandemic may have also provided a unique context for other questions in the Pisa survey, for example about school bullying.
All bullying metrics declined from 2018 levels, though school closures may have reduced the chances of, for example, getting hit or pushed around by other students.
New Zealand was among the worst in the OECD for behavioural problems in classrooms including noise and disorder, distraction by digital devices and students not listening to teachers.
In 2022, 28 per cent of students felt lonely at school, a figure that has been trending upwards for the past two decades. Only 68 per cent said they felt like they belonged at school, while 81 per cent said they felt safe.
Safety risks, however, including school vandalism, threats to hurt a student and witnessing school fights were above OECD averages.
In its 100-day plan, the Government wants to ban cellphones in classrooms and require primary and intermediate schools to teach an hour of reading, writing and maths per day.
Critics have said schools can already ban cellphones, while prescribing an hour of teaching for those subjects has been the subject of debate over whether it’s the best way to lift achievement.
The Pisa report also found a greater proportion of New Zealand students experience food insecurity compared with the rest of the OECD; 14 per cent of students did not eat at least once a week because of lack of money, compared to 8 per cent in the OECD.
The Government has also pledged to keep the school lunches programme, but it will be run through a “value-for-money” wringer, which Treasury has questioned.
A higher proportion of New Zealand students didn't eat at least once a week due to lack of money. Source: Ministry of Education
The latest Pisa data is a continuation of declining education levels, which have been highlighted in studies by local non-profit The Education Hub and think-tank The New Zealand Initiative.
Experts say education should never be viewed in a vacuum as there are multiple interwoven issues at play such as poverty, early home experience, housing stability and intergenerational trauma.
There are also issues with the school system itself, including school leadership, teacher quality, and students experiencing a different standard of learning across different schools, and sometimes even within the same school.
Derek Cheng is a senior journalist who started at the Herald in 2004. He has worked several stints in the press gallery and is a former deputy political editor.
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