New Zealand’s Youth Hit Rock Bottom in Key Subjects

The results for OECD’s international student assessments have been released.
New Zealand’s Youth Hit Rock Bottom in Key Subjects
New Zealand hits historic lows in PISA international test results. (SIAATH/Shutterstock)
Jessie Zhang

New Zealand has reported its lowest-ever results in the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), aligning with a global trend of worsening student academic performance.

The PISA tests measure a 15-year-olds’ ability to use their reading, mathematics, and science knowledge and skills to meet real-life challenges.

Students complete a two-hour test and a background questionnaire.

The latest results indicated a significant decline in maths, science, and reading scores. Maths scores dropped by 15 points to 479 (with 472 being the global average), while science and reading scores fell by four to five points each.

This decline aligns with an international trend, as 81 countries and economies experienced drops in average scores, partly attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In PISA 2022, the average dropped by almost 15 points in mathematics and about 10 score points in reading compared to PISA 2018,” the PISA report said.

“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.

“Performance in science, however, remained stable. The unprecedented drops in mathematics and reading point to the shock effect of COVID-19 on most countries.”

However, many countries, including New Zealand, had pre-existing educational issues contributing to their poor performance.

“In reading, for example, many countries such as Finland, Iceland, the Netherlands, the Slovak Republic, and Sweden have seen students scoring lower marks for some time—in some cases for a decade or more,” the report said.

“Educational trajectories were negative well before the pandemic hit. This indicates that long-term issues in education systems are also to blame for the drop in performance. It is not just about COVID.”

Heading In the Wrong Direction

The OECD average scores in 2022 were the lowest recorded, with the Netherlands and Finland experiencing drops of more than 20 points.

In the context of a 15-year-old student’s learning, a 20-point difference is considered equivalent to one year of education.

Approximately 25 percent of 15-year-olds, totaling 16 million children, are considered low performers in mathematics, reading, and science.

This classification applies to students who have not achieved Level 2 proficiency, indicating difficulties in tasks such as basic algorithm use or interpreting simple texts.

The issue is more severe in non-OECD member countries, where in 18 nations and economies, over 60 percent of 15-year-olds are classified as low performers in all three subjects.

All Hope is Not Lost

Michael Johnston, a senior fellow at the New Zealand Initiative, a pro-free-market public-policy think tank, says that the new government shows hopeful signals.

For instance, the new Minister of Education, Erica Stanford, has committed to implementing significant changes in New Zealand’s education system.

She pledged to train all primary teachers in structured literacy, an approach supported by evidence rather than politics or ideology.

Drawing a parallel to Germany’s “PISA shock” that prompted transformative reforms, Mr. Johnston argues that New Zealand’s educational decline over 20 years requires urgent attention and reform.

“In the very first PISA round, Germans received a rude surprise. They had thought their education system to be outstanding, but PISA showed it to be mediocre,” he said.

“The effect was so profound that a new term, ‘PISA shock,’ entered the German lexicon. Those unwelcome PISA results set off a massive wave of school reform.

“New Zealand has had no similar moment. Instead, we’ve been like the proverbial frog, slowly boiling alive. We can’t go on like this.”

The PISA assessments have run every three years since 2000.

Internationally, 690,000 students sat the tests last year. Around 4,700 New Zealand students from 169 schools took part.