Declining maths scores is a problem for the New Zealand economy

16 November 2021

Media release
New Zealand Institute of Economic Research (Inc)
Media Release, 16 November 2021

With statistics on COVID-19 infection and vaccination rates reported, interrogated and twisted every day, a basic understanding of maths is more important than ever. But in New Zealand, our school maths scores have been declining for the past twenty years. Over two NZIER Public Good Insights, Olivia Wills and Sarah Hogan explore why maths matters and ways to boost maths learning in school.

NZIER Insight 98 uses data from international surveys “Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study” (TIMSS) and the “Programme for International Student Assessment” (PISA) to track the decline in maths scores over time. PISA data shows scores fall across the board, from 523 points in 2003 to 494 points in 2018. TIMSS data shows that in recent years, the decline is biggest for students who attend the least affluent schools, indicating a widening inequality over time. This gap is a major policy concern, given the lifelong benefits from good maths performance. But the decline at the top of the distribution, where our top maths performers are only average at the international ‘intermediate’ level, is also a concern. Maths is important for innovation, and without top maths performers, our national economy is likely to miss out on important opportunities to lead technological change.
Education reforms can only go so far

NZIER Insight 99 turns to ways to improve maths performance. The evidence suggests that teacher specialisation or expert maths teachers are worth considering. We also see high use of technology in the classroom, while the OECD finds that best performing countries tend to use less, suggesting it may be time to rethink digital use. But the effectiveness of education policy changes can be limited without addressing wider issues.
“Housing is one factor that can limit the effectiveness of education policy options”, says Olivia. “Insecure tenancies may be one factor making students change schools. In 2020, students were nearly six times more likely to change schools twice or more in a year if attending a decile one school, compared to a decile ten school. We know that more frequent school changes are linked to lower school achievement. Unaffordable housing is also a problem for teachers. With stagnant wages and rising house prices, there are pockets of the country where teachers are priced out despite high demand.”

With many options on the table, evaluation and accountability are critical for making sure money is being spent in the right places. “Since the interventions introduced by the Ministry of Education are likely to be costly, it’s important there is a good evaluation plan in place, so we can know what’s worth continuing in the future.”

Read the Insight here.

For further information, please contact:
Olivia Wills
Senior Economist
027 288 6623
Olivia.Wills@nzier.org.nz

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