The gap between 15-year-old students who are excelling and
those who are failing has widened despite the Government's
increased focus on the "tail" of educational achievement.
A range of problems from poverty to curriculum changes were
cited for New Zealand's poor performance in OECD league
tables, in which it fell in all three core subjects since the
last assessment in 2009.
It was New Zealand's first big drop in the rankings - from
7th to 13th in reading, 13th to 22nd equal in maths and 7th
to 18th in science.
Education experts said yesterday that New Zealand should not
get too distracted by its position on the league tables in
the Programme for International Study Assessment (Pisa)
University of Auckland lecturer and Pisa expert Fiona Ell
said: "People get very hung up on the ranking ... because
it's like a Top of the Pops top 10 thing. I don't think they
should be ignored ... but knee-jerk reactions to rankings are
really dangerous in education systems."
New Zealand students traditionally did better in reading than
other areas, and the 2012 test comprised mostly of
mathematics. The rise of East Asian countries whose learning
was similar to the Pisa testing was also a significant
contributor to New Zealand's fall.
Academics said that underlying the data that formed the
league tables were some worrying statistics, in particular
the rise in underachievers - the gap between those students
who were doing well and those who were not had widened in the
last three years.
This was despite the Government's determination to eliminate
the tail of the education system.
Dr Ell said: "In some ways it's surprising in that there's
been a lot of focus on priority learners and there's been a
lot of work done in this space."
The drop has taken place under the National-led Government,
but it said the results were part of a gradual, decade-long
decline and blamed a range of factors which it inherited.
Education Minister Hekia Parata said these factors included a
new curriculum which was still bedding in, high rates of
exemptions in schools, poor data on student achievement and
under-investment in teaching practice.
In an urgent debate in Parliament which was prompted by the
Pisa results, Ms Parata reaffirmed her commitment to helping
"five out of five students" - a reference to the belief that
one in five students was failing in education.
Asked whether more money should be channelled into lower
decile schools to lift up the low achievers, she said that a
$110 million investment in poorer schools had not improved
results. She said better targeting of investment was needed.
Not only had the achievement gap widened, but the number of
people who were considered high achievers had also decreased
in the Pisa study.
The Prime Minister's Science Adviser, Sir Peter Gluckman,
said: "What's worrying is that there seems to have been a
decline in the people represented in the top end of the scale
and an increase in the number of people at the bottom end of
New Zealand was one of just two countries in which
socio-economic status had a strong connection to a student's
performance. Some countries' education systems made up for
social disadvantage, but this was not the case in New
While academics, MPs and unions said it was easy to identify
causes of New Zealand's drop in ranking, they said it was
more difficult to provide solutions.
Sir Peter said there was no quick fix to the problems with
New Zealand's educational achievement, part of which was a
Educational achievement was set early in life, and it was
hugely important to address primary teachers' low confidence
in science and maths teaching.