In the last three years ERO has published a series of reports about secondary schools. These reports have focused on student achievement, pathways, careers and the curriculum. Included in these reports has been a strong focus on student achievement. This focus has been consistent with the Government’s Better Public Service goal of having 85 percent of 18-year-olds achieving the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) Level 2 (or equivalent) by 2017.

In 2013 ERO published the first of its reports evaluating the work of schools aiming to lift the achievement of targeted groups of Year 12 students.[1] These schools were part of a Ministry initiative. The aim of the project was to see what schools could do to assist students who were not expected to achieve the NCEA Level 2 without additional support. ERO will publish a second report about a larger group of these schools later in 2014.

While the two reports above have examined schools’ strategies to identify and assist their target cohorts to achieve NCEA Level 2, this report – Raising Achievement in Secondary Schools – takes a broader approach to how schools inquire and respond to achievement data. Specifically, it examines how secondary schools have reviewed their 2011 and 2012 achievement information and developed activities, innovations or approaches to improve achievement. ERO’s starting point for this work was schools’ analysis of NCEA Level 2 results, although student achievement across each school was considered.

This evaluation found that while most New Zealand secondary schools have carried out some form of inquiry and improvement, the overall effectiveness of these processes was mixed. Only one-quarter of schools in this evaluation had effectively inquired into achievement information and introduced changes that had made a noticeable difference to student success. It is disappointing to find that while most of the remaining schools had invested a considerable amount of time analysing achievement information, the inquiries did not result in new approaches or innovations that improved achievement.

ERO identified three distinct groups of secondary schools in this evaluation. Each of these groups showed a different level of sophistication or effectiveness with regard to the analysis of achievement information and developing a response that improves results.

Ten of the 40 schools in this study had developed effective inquiry and improvement approaches. These schools had a culture of inquiry and responsiveness that had developed over several years. They had a range of effective approaches in place, a shared commitment to improving the status quo and a growing focus on involving families. These schools had good (and/or rising) levels of achievement, with evidence of having made a difference for targeted groups of students.

The changes made by these schools were mostly based around improvements to their pastoral care and support initiatives. There was less emphasis placed on developing innovations in the curriculum. The pastoral care and support improvements included the monitoring of student achievement and providing individualised responses based on student need. There were also systems introduced to mentor students, provide career planning, improve literacy and support with students’ homework.

While some of these schools had effective (and innovative) curriculum initiatives in place, the curriculum modifications made by most of these schools, as a result of their inquiry processes, were relatively minor and not likely to substantially raise achievement. One of these schools, with a predominantly Māori roll, did make a significant change to its curriculum with the aim of improving learning. This school also made the most significant achievement gains of all the schools. These findings suggest that while there are gains to be made in schools strengthening their pastoral care processes, school personnel also need to see curriculum change, and improved teaching and learning, as a key part of engaging students and raising achievement.

A second group of 14 schools demonstrated some effective inquiry and improvement processes. They exhibited a range of positive characteristics, but did not have the same strategic and coordinated approach to raising achievement as the most effective schools. While they had some good initiatives in place, their inquiry and improvement processes had yet to show significant improvements in the outcomes of students, especially underachieving students. The teachers at these schools also tended to be in the beginning stages when it came to analysing data, developing teaching as inquiry approaches and making effective changes. Many of these schools were using NCEA participation data to review their overall performance, and were subsequently failing to analyse all of the significant issues affecting student achievement, [2] such as examining the reasons why students drop out of school early.

A third group of 16 schools did not demonstrate effective school-wide approaches to inquiry and improvement. Any effective approaches found at these schools were usually limited to a minority of teachers. Many of the teachers at these schools believed that there was little they could do to alter the achievement levels of their students. As a result, they typically showed a lack of urgency in developing initiatives. At some of these schools, significant issues involving student attendance and engagement were not being addressed.

Considerable work is needed before all New Zealand’s secondary schools consistently and effectively use inquiry and improvement that lead to necessary curriculum changes for students not previously likely to achieve NCEA Level 2. School leaders, middle-managers and teachers must improve their analysis and interpretation of assessment and other information they collect about students. Such skills are needed to gain greater insights into what is working well and what should change to most influence student achievement.

As part of an inquiry and improvement approach, school leaders and teachers must also see curriculum development as a potentially critical area for change. In particular, they should consider wholesale changes to the way their resources, options and timetables are organised to ensure that those students who may not previously have achieved well are fully engaged and learning. A focus on mentoring students to achieve the subject qualifications they are participating in is not enough on its own. Much more could be achieved if curriculum changes were introduced that ensure every student participates in courses that both engage them and lead to qualifications that enable them to reach their potential in the future.