2 Nov 2014

Insight for 2 November 2014 - Maths & Science Not Hitting Mark

From Insight, 8:12 am on 2 November 2014

Tests put focus on maths and science teaching

New Zealand's scores have slumped in international maths and science tests for schools in the past decade.

Insight has been exploring what has gone wrong and what the prospects are for a recovery in the next round of tests.

Primary school children at Hampton Hill School in Tawa gathered around table scooping out slush on a screen to make paper

Children at Hampton Hill School, Tawa Photo: RNZ / John Gerritsen

In a secondary school science classroom a group of Year 9 students is grappling with a basic but absorbing biology problem - what characteristics indicate that something is alive?  

It is their first year of secondary school and most are debating the question with gusto.

They seem like a bright bunch - but are they any better than previous cohorts of young New Zealanders?

That question will be put to the test this school term when 5,000 Year 9's and 5,000 Year 5's participate in the Trends In International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS).

Graph of Science test achieve of  Year 5 students in NZ 1994 to 2011

Trends Graph Photo: Supplied / Ministry of Education

The tests are held every four years and recently the results for New Zealand have not been good. In both 2006 and 2010/11 our scores fell, leaving New Zealand below almost all other developed nations.

Read full report here

Four years ago, New Zealand's Year 5's score in the TIMSS science test reached its lowest point ever. How will this year's test-sitters fare?

Last year there was more bad news, when the results of the Programme in International Student Assessment, or PISA, showed New Zealand 15-year-olds were doing worse in reading, maths and science.

Some secondary school teachers say the change is not merely a matter of a few points in a test - they say there's been a noticeable change among their students.

So what is going wrong?

The Education Review Office reported on maths and science teaching in 2012 and it has some answers.

The manager of evaluation services, Stephanie Greaney, said the review found two-thirds of primary schools were not teaching science well.

"They're not getting much science - they may get one science topic a year, or they may get science that they've already learned last year... In some cases teachers have not understood the scientific concept they're even trying to teach," she said.

Stephanie Greaney said some teachers complained the introduction of national standards in reading, writing and maths meant they had less time for science.

Teacher in bright green wig makes paper with a group of primary school students

Hampton Hill School teacher, Carol Briesman, includes science in many lessons. Photo: RNZ / John Gerritsen

While some teachers find a way to combine teaching science with other subjects, the Education Review Office says more need to do the same.

But she said that means teachers need training in how to teach literacy and numeracy through science.

In maths, Stephanie Greaney said the review office made two main findings.

"We found 50% of schools had teacher aides helping with maths...  In many cases they were teaching the children that were the furthest behind, so the hardest to teach children were being taught by the teacher aide in maths. And we said that's not going to be really helpful. The classroom teacher is the best one to teach the hardest to teach."

Stephanie Greaney said the other big problem with maths teaching is grouping students according to their ability.

"The child that's constantly in that bottom class does not see themselves as a successful maths learner, they turn off, they don't have success, it just builds more non-success."

But changing the way teachers teach maths and science is not easy.

The co-director of Massey University's Centre for Research in Maths Education, Glenda Anthony, believes it takes time to change practice that's been embedded for a long time.

"To teach differently to how you learned is quite a challenging process," she said.

"And also we've got fixed attitudes to maths in society - at home and in parents, so there's quite a lot of change in the way we think about what it is to learn mathematics society-wise as well."

Open maths book with workings

Tests show New Zealand children struggle with basic number problems. Photo: RNZ / John Gerritsen

The Education Ministry is optimistic that things have improved.

But the Education Ministry's deputy secretary for evidence, data and knowledge, Lisa Rogers, is optimistic that changes should have improved children's maths performance since the last round of tests.

"The most obvious actually has been the setting of national standards," she said.

"What that's done is given teachers the opportunity to get early indication, quite quickly, as to which students are not achieving at their curriculum level. So that's been probably the biggest system impact."

Ms Rogers said in 2011 the ministry introduced a new maths programme for learners who are not doing well, the Accelerated Learning in Maths Programme, which has now been used in hundreds of schools.

And she said the ministry also subsidised a postgraduate maths diploma for teachers and provided free online training.

A Year 9 science class at Onslow College with teacher at the front..

A Year 9 science class at Onslow College. Photo: RNZ / John Gerritsen

 Children in this age group are being tested in the Trends in International Maths and Science Study this term.

However Ms Rogers was less confident about changes to the science results, as the government's efforts to improve science teaching were probably too recent to have an impact on the Trends' tests this term.

Those efforts included providing more science training for existing teachers and those studying to become teachers, and more resources for them to use in the classroom.

Bunsen burner

Bunsen burner Photo: RNZ / John Gerritsen

However, Ms Rogers said the greatest potential for change lay not so much with what the ministry could do, but with teachers themselves.

"The content and the innovation and the knowledge around teaching... is in the heads of our teachers, so we need to be able to unlock that. We need to enable teachers to be talking to each other about the curriculum, about what content is expected, about students' performance against that curriculum."

And for those who might be struggling with the answer posed to students about the characteristics of living things, the answer is MRS GREN: movement, respiration, sensitivity, growth, reproduction, excretion and nutrition.

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