What we know about science achievement: New Zealand Year 5 and Year 9 results from TIMSS 2014/15

Publication Details

This flyer briefly summarises student science achievement results from New Zealand’s participation in TIMSS 2014/15. It includes information about high and low achievers, relative strengths and weaknesses, and looks at the relationship to the New Zealand Curriculum. The achievement of boys and girls, students in different ethnic groupings, and students in different socio-economic groupings is also presented.

Author(s): Robyn Caygill, Vafa Hanlar and Charlotte Harris-Miller, Comparative Education Research Unit, Ministry of Education

Date Published: November 2016


New Zealand Year 5 and Year 9 results from TIMSS 2014/151

Overall achievement

  • The average2 science achievement of Year 5 students in 2014/15 was significantly higher than in 2010/11, but no significant change3 was observed in Year 9 students' average score.
  • TIMSS started 20 years ago and in this last cycle, the average science achievement of both Year 5 and Year 9 students was the same as that of the students in 1994/95.
  • Year 5 students' average science score in 2014/15 was higher than 14 other countries, but lower than 30, including most of the countries we usually compare ourselves with (such as Singapore, Australia, England, and the United States).
  • In Year 9, students' average science achievement was higher than 20 other countries, but lower than 14 (including Singapore, England, and the United States). Australia had similar achievement at this year level.
  • Although there were only 39 countries at the Year 9 level, compared with 47 at Year 5, New Zealand ranked relatively better at Year 9 than Year 5.

High and low achievers

  • Some students achieved scores much higher than the average, and some achieved much lower. TIMSS provides several ways we can describe achievement to help understand the science abilities of students.
  • The range between the students who scored highly and those who scored low was wider for Year 9 students in 2014/15 than in 2010/11, but hasn't changed for Year 5 students. New Zealand's ranges were bigger than many other countries.
  • Students who are "advanced" are those who score at the top levels and can do the most complex and difficult science questions in the TIMSS assessment.
    • In New Zealand, 6% of Year 5 and 10% Year 9 students were "advanced" in science.
    • This puts New Zealand above the middle at the Year 9 level and around the middle at the Year 5 level when the proportion of "advanced" performers is compared between countries.
    • For Year 5 students this proportion is smaller now than it was in 1994/95
  • At the other end of the continuum are students who performed below "low". These students did not correctly complete the simple, basic questions that we would expect them to do at their year levels.
    • In New Zealand, 12% of Year 5 and Year 9 students had scores that were below "low".
    • These are large proportions of students, compared to other countries.
    • This is similar to the proportions in 1994/95 for both year levels, but larger than those in 2002/03.

Strengths and weaknesses

  • In New Zealand, Year 5 and Year 9 students have shown greatest strength at Earth science and biology-related questions. Biology-related topics (life science) were the area of science most likely to be covered by Year 5 teachers in lessons.
  • Year 5 and Year 9 students performed better on questions that required them to use reasoning, compared with ones that required them to show their knowledge. The cognitive skill of applying their knowledge was also a relative strength at Year 9, but not at Year 5.
  • Between 2010/11 and 2014/15, there was a significant increase in Year 5 students' average achievement in life science, knowing and reasoning.

TIMSS and the New Zealand Curriculum

  • Although TIMSS is an international education assessment, it is designed to use questions that "match" with different countries curricula, as well as some questions that may be harder or easier. This means that we can look at just the questions that fit with each country's expectations and see how students achieved against those.
  • Less than half of the students were working at the desired level of science in the New Zealand Curriculum by the end of 2014 (when the test was administered). Not surprisingly, those students whose classes were working at higher levels of the curriculum had higher science achievement in TIMSS.
  • When looking at only the TIMSS questions which fit with New Zealand curriculum expectations, the average Year 5 student answered just under half of the items correctly, while the average Year 9 student answered half of the items correctly.

Girls and boys

  • At both Year 5 and Year 9, boys and girls had the same average science achievement, but boys had a wider range of scores.
  • The average Year 5 science score for boys and girls in 2014/15 was significantly higher than it was 20 years ago.
  • The Year 9 boys' science score has not changed much since 1994/95.
  • Year 9 girls' average score decreased significantly between 2002/03 and 2010/11. However, since then they had a strong increase and their average science score is now back to the same level as it was in 2002/03, and higher than it was 20 years ago.
  • More Year 9 girls were high achievers in science in 2014/15, compared to 2010/11, and more boys were lower achievers.
  • Year 5 boys and girls had similar science scores across all TIMSS cycles. At the Year 9 level, girls were lower than boys in 1994/95 and 2010/11, and had similar scores in all other cycles.


  • Nearly a quarter of Year 5 students and a fifth of Year 9 students identified themselves as belonging in more than one ethnic grouping in TIMSS (Māori, Pasifika, Pākehā/European, Asian, and Other).
  • All of the ethnic groupings had students who performed at advanced levels and below the "low" level, and there was a wide range of scores in all groupings as well.
  • There was no change in average scores between the last cycle and 2014/15 for any ethnic grouping.
  • Māori had a lower average score than non-Māori, and Pasifika had a lower average score than non-Pasifika. When the effects of socio-economic factors are taken into account, the gaps in achievement scores narrow.

Socio-economic status

  • TIMSS allows us to consider some indictors of SES and how they relate to achievement. Students who come from less wealthy communities and schools can, and do, achieve well.
  • Students in homes where there were lots of resources to support their learning had higher TIMSS science scores than students whose homes had fewer resources.
  • Science achievement was, on average, higher for students in schools that had larger proportions of economically advantaged students (which indicate they are schools in more affluent communities).
  • In New Zealand, the difference between average scores for Year 5 students in more affluent and less affluent schools was larger than most other countries in the study. In Year 9 there were a few more countries that had larger differences, but we were still higher than the international average.


  1. TIMSS 2014/15 was conducted in New Zealand and other southern hemisphere countries in 2014, and in northern hemisphere countries in 2015.
  2. In this case 'average' refers to the mean.
  3. If the difference between the scores is not statistically significant, this is reported as 'no change' or 'the same/ similar'. Statistical significance means we are 95% certain that we would get the same results if the study was repeated with a different sample.

Contact Us

Education Data Requests
If you have any questions about education data then please contact us at:
Email:      Requests EDK
Phone:    +64 4 463 8065