What do New Zealand students understand about civic knowledge and citizenship?

Publication Details

This is the first of a series of publications based on the results of the International Civic and Citizenship Education Study (ICCS). This report focuses on New Zealand Year 9 students' achievement in civic knowledge in comparison with their peers from other countries.

Author(s): Kate Lang, Research, Ministry of Education.

Date Published: November 2010

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Section 2: Overview

New Zealand is one of 38 countries that took part in the International Civic and Citizenship Education Study (ICCS) sponsored by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) 1. This first report in a series featuring New Zealand results from the International Civic and Citizenship Education Study (ICCS) focuses on New Zealand Year 9 students’ achievement in civic knowledge in comparison with their peers from other countries. Future reports will focus on student values, attitudes and behaviours in civics and citizenship and the role of the school and community in civic and citizenship education.

What is ICCS?

The International Civic and Citizenship Education Study (ICCS) is an international standardised study that looks at the ways in which young people are prepared to undertake their roles as citizens.

ICCS measures students’ knowledge and understanding of civic systems and citizenship issues, as well as student attitudes, perceptions and activities relating to civics and citizenship. It also looks at differences among countries in relation to the outcomes of civic and citizenship education and how these differences relate to student, school and community backgrounds.

Who took part?

During 2008/09, approximately 140,000 students around 14 years of age and 62,000 teachers in over 5,300 schools from 38 countries around the world participated in ICCS. In New Zealand almost 4,000 Year 9 students, 1,350 teachers and 123 principals from 146 schools took part in the study between October and December 2008. A representative sample of New Zealand schools with Year 9 students was selected. The student sample was representative of their Year 9 peers.

It is worth noting that data collection in New Zealand took place around the time of the 2008 general election, which may have influenced students’ responses to some questions.

This is the first time since 1971 that New Zealand has had an opportunity to know how well our teaching and learning is addressing the important themes around civic and citizenship education2.

How does civic and citizenship education fit into the New Zealand curriculum?

Civic and citizenship education is a broad-based topic that is embedded in the principles, values and key competencies of the New Zealand school curriculum.3 Civic and citizenship education is not taught as a separate subject, but is integrated into several curriculum subject areas, with social sciences being the key learning area. Social sciences are concerned with how societies work and how people can participate in the world as critical, active, informed and responsible citizens (Ministry of Education, 2007). In 21 of the 38 countries that took part in the ICCS study, civic and citizenship education is a compulsory general education subject or course.

Young people also develop understandings about their roles as citizens through a number of activities and experiences that take place outside the classroom or school. The home and community, as well as national educational and political contexts, also influence how students develop civic-related dispositions and competencies.

What information was collected?

Each student completed one of seven test booklets in a 45-minute cognitive test.4 The rotation of test booklets ensured broad coverage of the content domains of the ICCS assessment framework – civic society and systems, civic principles, civic participation and civic identities. Examples of cognitive test items are provided in the appendix. Students also completed a 40-minute questionnaire about their background and their attitudes, values and behaviours in relation to civics and citizenship.5

Teachers answered questions about their perceptions of civic and citizenship education (CCE) in their schools, school organisation and culture, and teaching practices. Principals provided information about their school – characteristics, culture and climate – and the provision of CCE at their school. ICCS also surveyed countries about the structure of their education system, CCE in the curricula and recent developments in CCE.

The ICCS cognitive tests and questionnaires were developed cooperatively with representatives from participating countries. Questions were trialled with a representative sample of students from each country and the results of the field test were used to select and refine the questions for the main study.

What can we find out from this study?

Civic knowledge is broadly defined in ICCS as knowledge and understanding of:

  • Civic education – the formal institutions and processes of civic life, such as voting in elections.
  • Citizenship education – how do people participate in society and how do citizens interact with, and shape their communities and societies.

The cognitive test material covers a range of key concepts and topics defined in the ICCS assessment framework such as: the roles, rights and responsibilities of citizens; public and political institutions; human rights, freedom and equity; social and community cohesion; decision-making and participation in society; social connectedness; communications; and the environment.

Three-quarters of the civic knowledge questions in the cognitive test required students to use analysis and reasoning and the remaining one-quarter tested students’ knowledge of civics.

ICCS measured student perceptions and behaviours relating to civics and citizenship in four domains – value beliefs, attitudes, behavioural intentions and behaviours. ICCS also explored the learning context for civics and citizenship – schools, classrooms, the community and the home.


  1. The IEA is an independent international consortium that conducts large-scale comparative studies of educational achievement.
  2. New Zealand participated in the first IEA study of civic education, which was part of the IEA Six-Subject Survey in 1971. A further IEA Civic Education Study (CIVED) was undertaken in 1999 but New Zealand did not take part.
  3. ICCS data collection took place before the implementation of the revised New Zealand curriculum for English-medium teaching and learning in February 2010. Te Mārautaunga o Aotearoa, the national curriculum for Māori-medium teaching and learning, will be implemented in 2011.
  4. The test language was English only.
  5. This report includes information about students’ backgrounds but does not report on students’ values, attitudes and behaviours. Future reports will focus on these areas as well as teachers’ and principals’ perspectives.

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