NMSSA 2018 Insights for Teachers: Social Studies

Publication Details

This report is designed to support social studies learning and teaching in New Zealand classrooms. It draws on insights generated from the assessment of social studies, within the social sciences learning area, carried out by the National Monitoring Study of Student Achievement (NMSSA) in 2018.

The report is in four parts. Part One introduces NMSSA and the NMSSA social studies assessment. Part Two presents four insights into learning in social studies. Part Three presents a task exploring place, location and collaboration, and its findings. Part Four considers what we can learn from the NMSSA results about literacy and numeracy for social studies purposes.

Author(s): Educational Assessment Research Unit, University of Otago and New Zealand Council for Educational Research for the Ministry of Education.

Date Published: February 2020


What is NMSSA?

NMSSA is designed to assess student achievement across the New Zealand Curriculum (NZC) (Ministry of Education, 2007) at Year 4 and Year 8 in New Zealand English-medium state and stat e-integrated schools. Each year, nationally representative samples of students from 100 schools at each of these two year levels are assessed in one or more learning areas. Social studies was assessed in 2014 and again in 2018.

Social studies within the social sciences learning area

Social studies is part of the social sciences learning area within the NZC.

The social sciences learning area is about how societies work and how people [including the students themselves] can participate and take action as critical, informed, and responsible citizens. Contexts are drawn from the past, present and future and from places within and beyond New Zealand. (Ministry of Education [MOE], 2007).

Social studies, for Levels 1-5 of the NZC, establishes the foundation for the separate social science disciplines offered in the senior secondary school.

In learning social studies, students develop and apply skills to enable them to participate in society as critical, informed and responsible citizens through investigating aspects of society, exploring issues, making decisions and working cooperatively with others.

Essential to learning and teaching in social studies are the conceptual understandings embedded within the conceptual strands of Identity, Culture and Organisation, Place and Environment, Continuity and Change, and The Economic World.

Social inquiry is the suggested approach to develop students' understanding in social studies. Through social inquiry, students ask questions, gather information, and examine the background to important societal ideas and events. They are able to explore and analyse values and perspectives relating to these ideas and events; and develop understandings about issues and the ways that people, including themselves, make decisions and participate in social action. (MOE, 2007).

The NMSSA 2018 social studies assessment

In order to guide the assessment of the multiple dimensions of social studies, a framework was developed from the conceptual strands and elements of social-inquiry approach within the NZC.

The social studies framework focussed on four interrelated constructs and the constructs' aspects as can be seen in Table 1.

Table 1: NMSSA Social Studies Framework

Table 1: NMSSA Social Studies Framework

To ensure students had multiple opportunities to demonstrate what they know and can do, constructs and aspects were generally assessed in more than one task, each within a different context. This allowed us to gain an overall understanding of students' achievement in relation to each construct.

Care was taken to ensure the contexts reflected New Zealand's bicultural heritage, New Zealand and global settings, and multiple perspectives.

Students participated in these tasks by means of three different assessment approaches:

  • Short written responses to open ended questions
  • One-to-one interview with a teacher assessor (TA) with responses video recorded
  • A group activity where students worked together to complete a task

Students interacted with a range of stimuli including video-clips, artefacts, maps and images before sharing their ideas in written or oral form.

A team of trained markers used assessment rubrics as a 'best fit' guide for each item to group student responses. From there it was possible to identify students' achievement in relation to the focus of the assessment.

The nature of the social studies scale

Combined results from the social studies assessment tasks enabled NMSSA to create a scale of achievement to describe the kinds of things students could do in social studies. Refer to Figure 1.

How to read this scale

The Nature of Social Studies (NSS) scale comprises a numerical scale on the left and bands of descriptors to the right of this. Each band of descriptors should be viewed as a bundle - that is the descriptors are not hierarchical within the band, but instead illustrate the depth of thinking that students at a particular stage would typically be able to demonstrate.

On the far right of the scale are the conceptual understandings, parts of social inquiry and the contexts that the assessment tasks reflect.

Figure 1: 2018 NMSSA Nature of social studies scale descriptors

How did the students do on the social studies assessment?

Figure 2 shows how students achieved on the 2018 NMSSA social studies assessment.

The study found that the majority of Year 4 students (73 percent) were performing at the expected curriculum of Level 2 or above. Just over a third of Year 8 students (37 percent) were performing at the expected curriculum of Level 4 or above. The study also found that there was no significant change in achievement for Year 8 students between 2014 and 2018. For Year 4 students, however, there was a small statistically-significant increase in average achievement.

Figure 2: Distribution of student achievement on the Nature of Social Studies assessment, by year


  1. Task: A set of questions within a contest that assess particular constructs and related aspects.
  2. Item: Question or set of questions within a task that assess specific constructs aspects.
  3. For a full description of the results refer to the report: NMSSA 2018: Social Studies - Key Findings

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