Mathematics literacy achievement: senior secondary schooling

What We Have Found

New Zealand is continuing its high performance in mathematical literacy at the senior secondary level, with only 5 out of 34 OECD countries achieving significantly higher mean scores than New Zealand.

Date Updated: December 2010

Indicator Description

Mathematical literacy of 15 year-old students.

Why This Is Important

Mathematical attainment at senior secondary level contributes to preparation for successful participation in tertiary education, and the ability to contribute to, and participate in, a changing labour market and an increasingly knowledge-based society.  Attainment level is also related to individual well being.
Mathematical attainment is also important because mathematical literacy is the ability to formulate and solve mathematical problems in real life situations.  This type of literacy is a foundation for participation as a reflective citizen in democracy and in occupational life.

How We Are Going

The mathematics scores from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2003, PISA 2006 and PISA 2009 can be summarised on a combined mathematical literacy scale.  This enables a comparison to be made between the mathematics literacy achievements of 15 year-old students in each of these years.  
Because the mathematical literacy domain underwent considerable expansion and change between 2000 and 2003, mathematical outcomes from PISA 2003 onwards are not comparable with results from PISA 2000.

New Zealand 15 year-old students performed well in PISA 2009 with 5 OECD countries (Korea, Finland, Switzerland, Japan and Canada) achieving significantly higher mean scores.  Shanghai-China, Singapore, Hong Kong-China, Chinese-Taipei, Lichtenstein and Macao-China also achieved significantly higher mean scores than New Zealand.  The mean performance of New Zealand students was similar to four OECD countries: the Netherlands, Belgium, Australia and Germany.  New Zealand’s performance was significantly above the other 24 OECD countries, including the United Kingdom and the United States.

Between 2003 and 2009 there has been no significant change in New Zealand’s average 15 year-old student performance in mathematical literacy.  In contrast, six OECD countries showed significant improvements and nine OECD countries, including Australia, showed significant reductions in performance from 2003 to 2009.

Figure 1: Distribution of overall mathematical literacy scores in PISA (2003, 2006 and 2009)

Significantly more New Zealand 15 year-old students (19%) achieved at the top proficiency levels (Level 5 or above) in mathematical literacy than the OECD average in PISA 2009 (13%).  Fifteen percent of New Zealand students did not reach beyond the lowest level of mathematical literacy (that is, achieving Level 2), and this proportion was statistically similar to that of Australia, but was statistically lower than the average across the OECD countries (22%).

In PISA 2009, across the OECD, 15 year-old boys achieved a significantly higher mean mathematical literacy score than girls.  In New Zealand while boys scored eight points higher than girls this difference was not statistically significant.

Figure 2: Percentage of New Zealand 15 year-old students reaching the PISA mathematical literacy proficiency levels (2009)


In 2009, the mean scores for 15 year-old Asian and European/Pākehā students were significantly higher than the OECD average.  The average score for Māori and Pasifika 15 year-old students was significantly lower than the OECD average.  Lower proportions of Māori and Pasifika students achieved at the highest levels of proficiency in mathematics and were over-represented at the lower levels when compared with European/Pākehā and Asian students.


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