On the Edge of Adulthood: Summary of Key Findings from the Competent Learners @ 16 project

Publication Details

Competent Children, Competent Learners is a longitudinal study which began in 1993 and follows the progress of a sample of around 500 New Zealand young people from early childhood education through schooling and beyond. Several reports from the age-16 phase of the project have been published. This report summaries the key findings at age 16.

Author(s): Cathy Wylie, Edith Hodgen, Rosemary Hipkins and Karen Vaughan, New Zealand Council for Educational Research.

Date Published: May 2009

Please consider the environment before printing the contents of this report.

This report is available as a download (please refer to the 'Downloads' inset box).  To view the individual chapters please refer to the 'Sections' inset box.  For links to related publications/ information that may be of interest please refer to the 'Where to Find Out More' inset box.

Section 2: How the research was done

The Competencies

At age 16, we gathered information on seven competencies, organised into two groups. The first group of competencies relates to the students' knowledge and thinking skills—their cognitive competencies. The second group of competencies relates to the students' approach to learning, and their social and communication skills - their attitudinal competencies.

There are three cognitive competencies:

  • literacy
  • numeracy
  • logical problem solving.

There are four attitudinal competencies:

  • thinking and learning
  • focused and responsible
  • social skills
  • social difficulties.

These four attitudinal competencies are slightly different from the ones we measured in our earlier studies but, like the earlier ones, they are closely related to some of the key competencies in the revised New Zealand curriculum. The key competencies are seen as being central to the curriculum because they are linked to lifelong learning. They are: thinking; using language, symbols and texts; managing self, relating to others, and participating and contributing. They also help young people develop the kinds of skills and attitudes they need to be successful at work and in their relationships, and to make a positive social contribution.

Thinking and learning

Students with a high score for this competency are likely to often or always:

  • take on new ideas
  • ask questions so that they understand
  • learn from teacher feedback
  • ask the teacher for help and advice.

Focused and responsible

Students with a high score for this competency are likely to often or always:

  • turn up to class on time with all the equipment they need
  • take responsibility for their own actions
  • follow class routines and rules without being reminded
  • stay on topic in a conversation.

Social skills

Students with a high score for this competency are likely to often:

  • respect other people's points of view or different ways of doing things
  • present their own point of view in an appropriate manner, even if there is a disagreement
  • be good at resolving disputes with their peers
  • help or support others in the class.

Social difficulties

We measured this competency differently from the other attitudinal competencies, so that students with a high score have fewer social difficulties than those with a low score. Students with a high score for this competency are unlikely to:

  • mix with students who are anti-social, or get into trouble
  • be influenced by peer pressure to do something out of character
  • hassle or bully other students
  • get hassled or bullied by other students.

Measuring the Cognitive Competencies

At age 16 we moved to new tests for literacy and numeracy. Previously we measured these competencies using the age-related Progressive Achievement Tests (PATs). However, these standardised tests are only available for year levels 4 to 10, and by age 16 all the young people were in either year levels 11 or 12, or had left school.

We measured literacy and numeracy using selected questions from the International Adult Literacy Survey. This survey, developed by Statistics Canada, was first carried out with New Zealand adults in 1996. Statistics Canada analysed the New Zealand results for 16-year-olds to select literacy and numeracy questions that would provide information about all levels of performance without the young people having to take the entire survey.

Once again we used the Ravens standard progressive matrices to measure the young people's logical problem solving skills.

Measuring the Attitudinal Competencies

As in all the previous studies, we asked teachers to rate their students' attitudinal competencies. Most students were rated by three teachers—their English teacher, and the teachers of their most-enjoyed and their least-enjoyed subject. We were not able to collect this information for the 27 young people who had already left school.

We found a wide range of scores on the first three of these attitudinal competencies. However, the range was narrower for social difficulties. Only a few students had marked social difficulties (a low score) and most had few social difficulties (a high score).

Collecting Information about the Experiences of 16-year-olds

As well as measuring competencies, we also collected information from the young people, their teachers and their parents about a range of experiences and resources that can affect young people's lives. These included:

  • the students' experiences of school, including subject choice
  • student attitudes to and experience of NCEA, including their record of learning (number of credits gained)
  • the young people's friendships, experiences and leisure activities
  • home and family life
  • what the students thought would happen when they left school.

We also gathered information on family income levels, and used information previously gathered on the young people's gender, ethnicity, and maternal qualification levels.

This information helped us get a better understanding about how students experience secondary school, about how our participants spend their time, about the relationships they have with others, and about their hopes—and their fears—as they stand on the edge of adulthood.

Analysing the Information

The purpose of our analysis was to look at the inter-connections between the young people's experiences and relationships, their background, their competencies, and their attitudes towards learning.

The results do not provide a recipe for individual success—or failure. They cannot be used to predict the course of an individual student, but they can be used to inform educational policy and practice so that we provide better learning opportunities for children and young people.


The following sections outline key findings from across the five reports. These reports are:

  • Competent Learners @ 16: Competency levels and development over time
  • Early childhood education and young adult competencies at age 16
  • On the edge of adulthood: young people's school and out-of-school experiences at 16
  • Student perspectives on leaving school, pathways and careers
  • Transition to secondary school: does it affect age-16 performance?

These reports are available on Education Counts or the New Zealand Council for Educational Research (NZCER) websites.

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