Background to this evaluation

Education increases the range of life choices and opportunities open to all New Zealanders. The challenge for New Zealand’s education system is to bring more students than in the past to a higher achievement level, with a broader skill range and better equity of outcomes. This challenge is formally framed at the school level in the Government’s education targets, one of which is to have 85 percent of 18 year olds achieving National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) Level 2 or equivalent in 2017. This requires an improvement from a baseline of 74.5 percent in 2011. Achieving NCEA Level 2 is of significance as educational success at this level increases the range of opportunities for young people. This applies in terms of their further education, employment, income level, health outcomes and quality of life. 1

To support this system target, the Ministry of Education (the Ministry) has worked since 2011 in selected secondary schools with target groups of secondary students who have potential but are at risk of not achieving NCEA Level 2. 2 Since 2011, the Ministry has also supported selected primary schools to accelerate the progress of Years 1 to 8 students who are achieving ‘below’ or ‘well below’ National Standards in mathematics, reading and writing for their year group.

System requirements for all schools

All New Zealand state schools are required to set annual targets and take actions for improvement within a strategic planning and review cycle. Every school’s charter must contain an annually updated section that states the board’s targets for student outcomes, its aims, directions, and objectives for school performance and its plan for resource use. 3 The Ministry school planning and reporting requirements 4 include the need to set at least one annual target for improvement in student achievement and to plan, implement and evaluate the actions required to achieve this target. The board’s annual plan should clearly outline the actions proposed for lifting student achievement over the next year. The details in the plan should be informed by the school’s analysis of its last year’s performance.

Requirements for primary schools

Primary schools must report each year to the Secretary for Education on numbers and proportions of students ‘above’, ‘at’, ‘below’, or ‘well below’ National Standards at each year level (including sub-groups of Māori, Pacific, Pākehā and Asian students by gender and year level).

Current achievement patterns nationally

National public achievement information published by the Ministry each year since 2011 shows incremental shifts in the proportion of students achieving NCEA Level 2 (or equivalent) and National Standards each year. The proportion of Māori and Pacific students achieving benchmarks has risen steadily each year. However, there are still proportionally fewer Māori and Pacific students achieving the benchmarks than other students.

Research on best approaches for achievement challenges

There has been a marked increase in recent years in research outlining the factors that contribute to achievement and actions that counter underachievement in schools.

1. International research on school leadership shows that pedagogical leadershiphas a key influence on improving student outcomes for diverse learners (Robinson et al, 2009). 5 Target or goal setting is important within pedagogical leadership because it creates high expectations. Pedagogical leaders take key actions that make the link between direction setting and wider school processes of strategic and curriculum planning, pedagogical development and focused resourcing (Robinson, 2007). 6

2. New Zealand research on effective school improvement shows that schools need to combine processes of target setting based on achievement information, with planning in-school actions. To succeed, schools need to apply their time and money strategically, so that they build teacher capacity. Student achievement and engagement is improved through the resulting improved learning opportunities (Timperley et al, 2010). 7

3. ERO’s School Evaluation Indicators (2015) are drawn from an analysis and synthesis of research and evaluation findings linked to student outcomes. They focus on what makes the most difference to achieve equity and excellence in primary and secondary schooling. This requires a national effort to reduce the achievement disparity within and across schools, improve education provision and outcomes for all students, and ensure that Māori achieve education success as Māori.

4. Meta-analyses pulling together large international studies of learning and teaching show that to accelerate learning, in-school conversations need to focus on defining progress and implementing interventions for students at risk of underachieving. Educational officials, school leaders and teachers need to work together more collaboratively than they have in the past for successful educational reform (Hattie, 2015). 8

Recent ERO national evaluations on student achievement

1. Increasing Educational Achievement in Secondary Schools 9 evaluated a short-term initiative to support the achievement of a target cohort of Year 12 students in 12 schools. ERO found that four approaches were commonly used among the practical strategies schools applied:

  • individualised learning and support
  • careful tracking and monitoring of achievement changes
  • positive relationships with students and families
  • robust review and improvement of teaching and support initiatives.

2. Raising Achievement in Primary Schools 10 reported how well primary schools were accelerating learning so that the numbers of students achieving ‘at’ or ‘above’ National Standards increased annually. The evaluation focused on the actions taken to accelerate progress for Māori or Pacific students who were initially reported as ‘below’ or ‘well below’ expectations. The report found:

  • about half the schools used a range of deliberate strategies to accelerate and sustain improvement
  • teachers at these schools were committed to trying new things when student progress was not satisfactory
  • teachers designed teaching and learning programmes that accelerated progress beyond the norm for a year’s teaching for students at risk of not achieving
  • many schools planned actions across the three National Standards areas of reading, writing and mathematics
  • some schools focused their actions on just one of these National Standards areas and used actions in this area as a trial for possible wider application. 

3. Raising Student Achievement in Secondary Schools. 11 ERO evaluated how well secondary schools were analysing NCEA Level 2 data to plan adjusted practices in the following year. The report found that about a quarter of secondary schools analysed data effectively as part of strategic planning. Effective strategic planning in secondary schools combined:

  • planned developments in teacher capacity
  • curriculum adjustments and new learning pathways
  • wellbeing arrangements that contributed to lifts in achievement.

4. Achievement 2013-2017: Success for Students. 12 This report evaluated a Ministry initiative to have specialist advisors work with selected secondary schools whose NCEA achievement levels had greatest potential for improvement. The report found three key practices contributed to short term gains for students:

  • carefully matching each student with a caring, supportive adult who had regular conversations with them regarding their learning (learning conversations)
  • timely monitoring of student progress and achievement
  • maximising learning opportunities with extra targeted teaching, provided both during and outside regular school hours.

Purpose of this evaluation

This evaluation investigates school target setting and actions as key processes for school improvement, so that significant groups of students in schools will have their learning accelerated. ERO’s analysis focused on the accelerated progress of individual students within target groups. ERO wanted to understand the extent that targeted actions by schools lifted student achievement, in particular for those students at risk of underachievement. ERO also wanted to understand the school-level conditions that supported accelerated learning 13 for more positive outcomes for these students.