Competencies at age 14 and competency development for the Competent Children, Competent Learners study sample

Publication Details

This report focuses on the competency levels and development of competencies for 475 14-year-olds, as part of the Competent Children, Competent Learners project, which is a longitudinal study of a sample of New Zealand young people who have been followed from their final early childhood education centres in the Wellington region.

Author(s): Cathy Wylie, Hilary Ferral, Edith Hodgen, and Jean Thompson, New Zealand Council for Educational Research.

Date Published: 2006

Executive Summary

The main aim of the project is to chart the development of competencies in the context of home and educational experiences which may account for differences in patterns of development and young people's performance.

The competency measures we describe are results from reading comprehension, writing, mathematics, and standard progressive matrices (non-verbal pattern completion) tasks, and ratings from core-subject teachers (English, mathematics, and science) in relation to attitudinal competencies. The latter comprise curiosity, perseverance, self-management, self-efficacy, social skills with peers, social skills with adults, and communication.

Cognitive Competency Levels at Age 14

Scores on the standard progressive matrices were much the same as the scores for this age group found in 1984 when the matrices were normed for New Zealand . This sample had slightly higher scores on the PAT reading comprehension tests than the age-14 sample when these tests were revised in 1990, and somewhat higher scores on the mathematics items from the PAT test.

In the writing task, spelling was more accurate than punctuation. Grammar and syntax were simple rather than complex. Just under half the 14-year-olds were using or beginning to use vocabulary that was appropriate to their task and audience. Fifty-five percent were organising and linking ideas logically and sequentially. Eighty-nine percent provided some justification for their ideas, and 37 percent expressed personal viewpoints and arguments.

Attitudinal Competency Levels at Age 14

Teacher perceptions of the young people they taught were largely consistent across the three core subjects, indicating that they behaved similarly in different classes. These perceptions show a wide range of behaviours, attitudes, and reactions.


Around 60 percent of the study sample were thought by their core subject teachers to often or always enjoy new experiences or challenges, and take an active interest in the world around them. Around a third were seen to often or always think of new ways to solve problems, and 27 percent, to ask a lot of questions.


Around two-thirds of the study sample would often or always meet any promises they made, and finish all their homework and class work. Over half would also often or always have a good concentration span when working, and meet any of their own goals. Just under half would persist in solving a problem.


The young people in the study did not always fit into class routines. Just over half the sample always turned up for class on time, and 43 percent always brought with them all the equipment they needed for the class. This would have some implications for teachers' planned lessons. However, at the other end of the spectrum, only 8 percent only sometimes or rarely turned up to class on time, and 15 percent, to bring all their equipment with them. Forty-two percent of the study sample often or always checked their work before completing or handing it in.


Seventy percent of the study sample were thought by their core-subject teachers to be often or always optimistic, and willing to learn from mistakes. Around half often or always carried out any leadership role they were given, or saw other students' point of view.

Social skills with peers

Most of the study sample was seen by their core-subject teachers to get on well with other students. Forty percent were often or always good at resolving disputes or keeping things smooth with their peers, and 28 percent, to support other students in class. Five percent of the study sample were seen by their core-subject teachers to be sometimes or often bullied, and 7 percent to sometimes or often bully. Five percent often or always associated with antisocial peers.

Social skills with adults

At age-14, just over half the study sample always showed their core-subject teachers respect. Most were confident in their interactions with teachers, and presented their point of view appropriately.


The highest ratings for items in the communication measure were for being able to follow a conversation, listening well, and expressing views and needs appropriately. More than 60 percent of the study sample were seen by their core-subject teachers to do this often or always. Around a quarter of the sample hardly ever or never asked for something to be repeated if they did not understand it the first time.

Associations Between the Competency Measures

There are very strong correlations amongst perseverance, self-management, and self-efficacy, indicating strong links between these measures, that is, those who show a high level of perseverance also tend to display high levels of self-management and self-efficacy.

The cognitive competencies show substantial linear associations with each other. Amongst the cognitive competencies, writing is most weakly correlated with the other cognitive competencies, while the strongest relationships are logical problem-solving with mathematics, and reading with mathematics.

Predictability of Age-14 Competency Levels

Correlations between previous scores and age-14 scores increase with time, for example, in mathematics, from 0.57 between age 5 and age 14, to 0.82 between age 12 and age 14. Of the age-5 scores, mathematics has the highest correlation with age-14 scores. The attitudinal competency scores have lower correlations than the cognitive competencies.

How do attitudes support cognitive competencies? Or is it vice versa? When we analysed the relationship at age 14 alone, we found that the cognitive competencies could not account for the variance in the attitudinal competencies: someone with a high level of reading comprehension is not necessarily going to have a higher score for, say, curiosity than someone with a low level of reading comprehension. But attitudinal competencies did account for a reasonable proportion of the variance in cognitive scores, particularly perseverance, communication, and curiosity. So a 14-year old who listens carefully, keeps going when they face a problem, or keeps an open mind, is more likely to get a higher reading comprehension or mathematics score than one who does not.

The relationship between attitudes and cognitive performance is more complex when traced over time. Attitudinal competencies contribute to cognitive performance at the same age, but not to cognitive performance at a later age. Cognitive performance at one age does contribute to attitudinal performance at the next age. Thus though these two dimensions are distinct from one another, they are connected over time.

Social characteristics have some bearing on competency levels at age 14. We have used four in our analyses: family income levels, maternal qualification, gender, and ethnicity. Very high and very low competency scores were achieved in all social groups. However, there are differences in average scores. The higher the level of family income and maternal qualification, the higher the average score in the cognitive competencies at age 14. The gradients were present, but not so steep, for the attitudinal competencies. Students whose family income was low at age near-5 had lower scores than others. Females had higher average scores for reading comprehension and writing, and all the attitudinal competencies other than curiosity. Päkehä/European and Asian young people had higher average scores than Mäori and Pacific young people, but not for logical problem-solving.

Predictability of High and Low Performance

Earlier high performance is highly likely to result in later scores that are above the median, and earlier low performance is highly unlikely to do so. However, a small minority do show marked changes in performance over the years, indicating that current performance levels at each age should not be taken for granted, or accepted as inevitable.

The majority of those whose scores at age 5 or age 8 are in the highest quartile are also in the highest quartile at age 14. However, there is some volatility in these patterns—not all remain above the median at every age. Yet those whose scores do dip often recover their performance level, suggesting that they have a reasonably robust core of knowledge, skills, and support, to fall back on.

The majority of those whose scores at age 5 or age 8 are in the lowest quartile are also in the lowest quartile at age 14. Of those who do progress above the median, the ones who make gradual improvements over some years are more likely to make sustained gains that put them above the median than do those who have rapid spurts. This is a different pattern from those who were initially in the highest quartiles, suggesting a less robust core of knowledge, skills, and support.

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