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NZ's literacy score drops for first time in 15 years

Radio New Zealand logo Radio New Zealand 6/12/2017

Primary school file photo. © Getty Images Primary school file photo. New Zealand's score in an international reading test for 10-year-olds has dropped for the first time in 15 years.

Fifty countries participated in the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study and New Zealand was one of only 12 nations where reading ability has fallen.

The study said New Zealand's average score dropped from 531 points to 523, and had hovered at about 530 since testing began in 2000.

The score put New Zealand in 33rd place, well behind the highest ranked nations, the Russian Federation which had an average score of 581 points, and Singapore on 576 points.

The results showed about 27 percent of New Zealand children did not meet the "intermediate benchmark" for reading compared to an international median figure of 18 percent.

Eleven percent demonstrated the highest level of reading ability, just above the international median of 10 percent but behind other English-speaking nations such as Australia and the US where 16 percent were in the top group, and England where 20 percent were at the top.

The study tested 319,000 children in 2015 and 2016, including several thousand New Zealand children in late 2015.

It said early childhood education was associated with higher scores, as was a home environment that supported learning, and having a positive attitude to reading.

It said one in four children tested internationally arrived at school hungry and that was associated with lower average achievement scores. Students who were never hungry at school had an average score of 545 compared to 503 for children who were hungry every day or almost every day.

New Zealand girls' average score of 533 points was 21 points higher than the boys' average, one of the biggest gender gaps recorded by developed countries and similar Australia and Finland.

Achievement linked to attendance, socio-economic factors

The report showed New Zealand children were the second most likely to be placed in reading groups according to their ability. The practice affected 43 percent of New Zealand children always or almost always, compared to an international average of just 11 percent.

The biggest achievement differences for New Zealand children were related to attendance and the socio-economic cohort of their school.

Children who were never absent or absent no more than once a month had an average score of 537 points, while those who were absent once every two weeks scored an average of 496 points and the ten percent of New Zealand children who were absent once a week or more scored 456.

Children from schools with a relatively well-off cohort of students had a higher average score (551) than children from schools where more than 25 percent of children were from poor families and fewer than 25 percent were from affluent families (484).

The percentage of New Zealand children reporting a lot of learning resources at home (39 percent) was above average, though below the highest scoring country Australia (46 percent). Those children had an average score of 581 points compared to 522 points for those with some resources. There was no figure reported for the two percent of New Zealand children with few learning resources at home.

Bullying has impact on reading scores

A high proportion of New Zealand students (24 percent compared to an international average of 14 percent) said they were bullied weekly and their average score of 494 points was considerably lower than the 541 point average of the 40 percent of New Zealand students who said they were almost never bullied.

New Zealand schools where principals reported hardly any discipline problems had an average score of 539 points, compared to 497 at schools that reported minor problems.

The average score was also higher in New Zealand scores that emphasised academic success, ranging from about 545 points for schools with a strong emphasis to about 500 points for schools with a medium emphasis.

New Zealand children's access to digital devices in their homes was about the international average and those with high access recorded average scores about 20 points higher than those with medium access.

Nearly all New Zealand students were able to access computers for their reading lessons and they had a higher average score (529) than those who did not (498).

Only three percent of the New Zealand children had not attended early childhood education and their average score of 507 points was much lower than the 549 points of the 60 percent of children who had at least three years of early education.

Forty-four percent of children said they very much liked reading and they had a higher average score (535 points) than the 14 percent of children who did not like reading (508 points).

The report showed New Zealand teachers spent as much time as other teachers around the world teaching various reading and comprehension skills and were slightly more likely to make frequent use of plays and fiction books.

Factors influencing New Zealand children's performance:

(points are the difference between highest and lowest performance according to each factor)

Attendance: 81 points

School socio-economic makeup: 67 points

Home learning resources: 60 points

Academic emphasis of school: 45-55 points

Bullying: 45 points

Hunger: 42 points

Early childhood education: 42 points

School discipline: 40 points

Computers for reading: 31 points

Enjoyment of reading: 27 points

Gender: 21 points

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