Local and international test results show NZ students are slipping in maths and science. We asked four experts to suggest how we could do better

Professor John Hattie - Expert on student learning

PISA envy is rife at the moment as we quickly look to see who is at the top of the world rankings and then find New Zealand has slipped compared to previous rounds. This should be a shot of reality and force us to not be complacent with the status quo. We have slipped from the second- to the third-rated group of countries. The greater message is that standing still, let alone going backwards, is not the way to catch up with those screaming above us.

There are a number of reasons for this NZ decline, including the woeful attempt to push numeracy strategies which has had a major negative impact on our students' capability of completing the PISA assessments, and the failed attempt to introduce science based on "awe and wonder". But these are not as critical as the issue of the lack of consistency in teachers' understanding of challenge across the country.

Yes, NZ has almost the greatest spread in its scores of all nations - we are very low in equity. But let us not mistakenly interpret this to mean that we need to close the gap, pour millions into the bottom, and worry about the tail. These are misleading metaphors as all students need to make the growth if we are to make the difference.


Every student should gain at least a year's growth for a year's input. Fixing the curriculum, introducing more tests, introducing more accountability, or having more sticks and carrots are of little use until we remedy the moderation of teacher judgments; all students in NZ schools should be assured that when they walk into a class that they will be appropriately challenged to improve. Importantly, this sense of challenge should not be unique to each teacher. There needs to be a shared understanding of progressing through the curriculum - something we do not have yet, as highlighted recently by the National Standards.

There are two possible responses to the current issues in NZ. One reaction is to complain about the data (yes, they are close to random numbers) and sweep the problem back under the carpet and return to the "good old days" The other is to accept the problem and find solutions to this variation among and between our schools. Historically, secondary teachers solved a similar variation problem with NCEA about 10 years ago with much success. Now we need to grapple with variability in Years 1-10, as it is the combined effects of these years that lead to the PISA results. Only when greater consistency among and between schools of the concept of challenge is achieved, can we better drive up these standards to begin to compete again at the top of the world.

Sir Peter Gluckman - Chief Science Advisor to the Prime Minister

Ranking exercises such as PISA are useful but cannot address issues of context. They allow essential benchmarking against ourselves, offering a way to track progress over time. In this sense the recent PISA score release is concerning because the percentage of students scoring in the top bands for science and maths is declining and in lower bands it is increasing. But there is no quick fix.

Two years ago, I released a report on science education that highlighted the complexities surrounding science education. Earlier this year, the National Science Challenges panel signalled the need to enhance both science education and science literacy, which are intimately linked. Formal education may take place in schools, but how children engage and commit to a topic depends very much on the family and societal milieu. We are a society that has not committed strongly to science over many decades. Yet we know that key to a nation's well-being in the 21st century will be its use of science and technology for innovative economic and social development, and environmental sustainability.

The recent findings of our National Monitoring Study of Student Achievement (NMSSA) in science have given us a much more nuanced set of data to consider. We now know for instance, that many primary school teachers don't feel confident teaching science. If students don't acquire the foundational knowledge, skills and attitudes for science in these early years, they are unlikely to take root easily in secondary school. We also know that intermediate students are having trouble connecting what they are learning to other (and for them, more pertinent) contexts in their lives, and are thus losing interest in science.

Thus, I think that the most strategic interventions will be those that: 1) target primary and intermediate years: 2) support teachers at the secondary level and keeping these specialist teachers linked to the science community; 3) support teacher development; 4) innovate learning contexts and materials and thus ensure relevance to students who are today exposed to many more sources of information; and 5) enable engagement with communities and whanau. And we cannot hope to increase performance in science education if we do not consider how to improve reading and mathematical literacy as well. But any efforts to support science, technology, and mathematics education will be of limited impact if they do not consider the broader context. It is difficult for students to learn if they are not supported by societal and family commitment, and this requires greater scientific literacy. It is a collective challenge, not just on schools or government but on the whole community.

Margi Leech - Primary maths tutor

Today the emphasis in NZ is teaching maths with an understanding of how maths makes sense rather than on drill and rote methods. However the memorisation and practice side of the balance has been not given enough status or importance.

Let's work on getting the balance right. Strategies are great, but if there is no knowledge behind them, then there is only a set up for failure.

Many children are not making secure progress beyond Stage 4 (Year 2). They get no clear guidance as to the fine steps of concept development, thinking and progress and there is no small step structure to help the teachers design their activities. Teachers have to rely on their own professional judgment but too many still have their own hang-ups over maths. They feel inadequate themselves and are reluctant to pursue teaching children when they themselves are not confident.

The maths curriculum assumes children already know about numbers and have a concept of numbers before it begins. It is all based on the belief that children will learn the concept of numbers, how our number system works and calculating through counting. But counting has huge limitations! No one uses counting to figure out any calculations past approximately 20, so why put such great emphasis on it at the beginning? Many children cannot understand the count sequence or why they are made to work like this mentally. They need visual representations, like the traders in 1375BC who used cuneiform to record their sales and stock.

Why not introduce at the beginning what maths really is - pattern! Numbers just describe the patterns. Patterns are so important because they teach us truth: mathematics is predictable, reliable and useful. Pattern is the foundation for all mathematical reasoning.

Professor Dale Carnegie - Head of Engineering School, Victoria University

The New Zealand Government has set the very laudable goal of increasing the number of engineering graduates that the country produces. International examples clearly illustrate that such an approach does lead to significant future economic growth. In order to achieve these increased engineering graduates, a reality is that we need to increase the number of students leaving secondary school who are well-prepared in mathematics and physical sciences. There is no problem with our very top students, those who are motivated to strive for the merit and excellence grades. But these students cannot fill all the additional places in engineering. Instead we have to up-skill and motivate the next tier of students.

NCEA has been successful in many areas, especially keeping students in school longer. However it is very clear from our research that for very many students NCEA is not effectively preparing them for engineering study at university.

Our research over a large number of first-year engineering students reveals a systemic problem with the concept of the "achieved" NCEA grade. This grade spans a huge range - it can include excellence-level students who have made some minor errors, through to students who really have not gained competence in the material. Many potentially capable students report that they just "cruised through NCEA" knowing they would be able to obtain the achieved grade with minimal work. A failed assessment is "no big deal"as often they get to re-sit that assessment. When they take that work ethic and expectation into University study, they are in trouble. The result is that there is significant variability in "achieved-level" students' study habits, work ethic and subsequently, actual subject knowledge.

Compounding this issue, we are aware of secondary schools that actively discourage students who have only gained an achieved grade in mathematics at NCEA Level 2 from enrolling in that subject at Level 3. This seems to be due to a concern that those students might fail, with a consequential adverse effect on that school's league table standings. This removes many potential students from even being able to consider enrolment in engineering.

At the core of the problem is the lack of a real, meaningful grade. I advocate for a return to real percentage scores - these motivate students to improve themselves, to gain the best score they can. It would end the farce of excellent students receiving an achieved grade due to one or two minor mistakes. It would give the universities a real understanding of student ability.

I further advocate for the abolition of secondary school league tables. Let the schools take on marginal students into Level 3 mathematics and physics. Schools should not be penalised (via league table results) if they have taken a risk with some students and it hasn't paid off - rather they should be incentivised to take such risks and make a real difference. If students have never taken Level 3 mathematics or physics, then they are effectively lost to engineering (and many other career options as well).