Science literacy achievement: senior secondary schooling

What We Have Found

New Zealand continues to perform above the OECD average and the average score has changed little since 2012.

Date Updated: December 2018

Indicator Description

Scientific literacy of 15 year-old students.

Why This Is Important

Scientific literacy assists students to participate as responsible and informed members of society, and as productive contributors to New Zealand's economy and future.

Attainment at senior secondary level contributes to preparation for successful participation in tertiary education, and the ability to contribute to, and participate in, a changing labour market and an increasingly knowledge-based society. Attainment level is also related to individual well-being.

How We Are Going

Scientific literacy was the major domain in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) in 2015.

Three scientific competencies (explain phenomena scientifically, evaluate and design scientific enquiry and interpret data and evidence scientifically), three scientific knowledge types (content knowledge, procedural and epistemic knowledge) and three content knowledge areas (physical, living and earth/space systems) were assessed as part of the combined scientific literacy framework.

Trend information for science literacy is available from 2006, 2009 and 2012. However due to changes in the way scientific literacy has been assessed, no comparison can be made with the results for PISA 2000 and 2003.

In PISA 2015, New Zealand performed above the OECD average in science (513 compared to 493). New Zealand scored significantly below 9 countries, 4 of which are OECD members. Seven countries (6 of which were OECD members) had similar average scores to New Zealand and 53 countries (including 24 OECD members) had lower average scores than New Zealand.

Proficiency levels describe the types of science tasks that students can do. Students performing at Level 6 are adept at using their scientific knowledge in a variety of complex situations. Students performing below Level 2 have limited scientific knowledge that can only be applied in a few familiar situations.

New Zealand has a slightly larger proportion of students performing at the highest levels of scientific literacy than the OECD average, with 13% reaching Level 5 or above compared to 8%.  Seventeen percent of New Zealand 15 year-old students did not reach beyond the lowest level of scientific literacy (Level 1); a lower proportion than the average across the OECD countries (21%).

Figure 1: New Zealand mean performance compared to OECD average (2006-2015)

Note:  Error bars on the graph provider a 95 percent confidence interval for the estimate of the average.


Fifteen year-old New Zealand boys achieved a marginally higher mean scientific literacy score (516) than girls did (511) in 2015. As in previous cycles the gender difference is not statistically significant. However since 2006, girls’ mean performance has declined by 21 points whereas boys’ mean performance has declined by only 13 points over the same period.

Figure 2: New Zealand PISA Science literacy mean scores, by gender (2006-2015)

Note: Error bars on the graph provider a 95 percent confidence interval for the estimate of the average.


Māori and Pacific students are traditionally under-served by the education system, along with special education students, and those from low socio-economic areas. The Ministry of Education is dedicated to improving outcomes for these students.

Māori and Pacific student performance was significantly below the OECD average. A lower proportion of Māori and Pacific students achieved at the highest levels of proficiency in science, and these students were over-represented at the lower levels when compared to the New Zealand average.

Figure 3: New Zealand PISA Science literacy mean scores, by ethnic group (2006-2016)

Note: Error bars on the graph provider a 95 percent confidence interval for the estimate of the average.


Improving education outcomes for students from low socio-economic areas is another priority for the Ministry of Education.

In this indicator, socio-economic status is measured using the PISA index of economic, social and cultural status (ESCS). This index is created by asking the students about their parents’ occupation and education level, their access to educational resources like books and computers, and whether they had certain items in their household that are likely to be related to parental income e.g. dishwasher, pay television etc. New Zealand has an ESCS score that is similar to the OECD average.

The New Zealand students were split into quarters based on their ESCS index scores.

The PISA mean science score for those in New Zealand’s lowest quarter (lowest socio-economic group) in 2015 was well below the New Zealand mean and OECD mean scores. The mean scores for New Zealand students across each quarter of the ESCS Index were similar to the 2012 values but significantly lower than the 2006 values.


  • May, S., with Flockton, J. & Kirkham, S. (2016). PISA 2015: New Zealand Summary Report. Wellington: Ministry of Education.
  • OECD. (2016). PISA 2015 results (Volume I): Excellence and equity in education. Paris: OECD Publishing.

The Ministry of Education has established an Iterative Best Evidence Synthesis Programme to systematically identify, evaluate, analyse, synthesise and make accessible, relevant evidence linked to a range of learner outcomes.

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