Decline in students taking key NCEA maths standards, research finds

Research by a Master of Education student from Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington shows a drop in students studying key maths standards.

The research, by Ms Sarah Howell, found the number of secondary students studying algebra and calculus at NCEA Level 1 and 2 declined between 2013 and 2019.

“Algebra acts as a gatekeeper for progression in maths and without this knowledge, students won’t be able to begin tertiary degrees that rely on strong mathematics skills,” Ms Howell says.

The drop in algebra was particularly sharp for decile 10 schools, she says.

“In 2015, 83 percent of enrolled year 11 students at these schools were attempting the key algebra standard (AS 1.2) that sets them up to take further algebra and calculus. However, in 2019, only 49.4 percent were attempting this standard.

“With fewer students participating in and completing both Level 1 and Level 2 algebra, the future prospects for Aotearoa’s students in science-related careers may be limited,” Ms Howell says.

Graph shows the percentage of year 11 students sititng level 1 AS1.2 algebra from 2013-2019. The range is from 82 % in 2015 for decile 10 only, down to 32% for deciles 2-3 in 2019

Dr Bronwyn Wood, senior lecturer in the School of Education at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria Univiersity of Wellingon, believes the decline reflects the design of the NCEA system.

“One of the unique features of NCEA is the flexibility it allows schools and students to select the achievement standards they wish to have. For topics viewed as more difficult, such as algebra, schools can decide not to offer them, leave them up to students to select, or offer alternative—arguably easier—standards,” Dr Wood says.

The research found the number of students studying the key algebra standard had declined across all decile levels. However, there were marked differences between school deciles, Ms Howell says.

“In 2015, the proportion of students in decile 10 schools studying Level 1 algebra was 40 percentage points higher than in decile 1 schools. In 2019, the gap was smaller but there was still a 10 percentage point difference,” she says.

Achievement also varied by school decile. “For the same algebra standard (AS 1.2), higher decile schools not only had pass rates 30 percentage points above the lowest deciles, but their students attained more merit and excellence grades.”

“This inequity carries through into higher education. Students who pursue science and engineering courses, as well as our future maths teachers, are more likely to be those from middle-class, comfortable backgrounds, thus reducing the diversity of the workforce in these areas,” Dr Wood says.

Both Dr Wood and Ms Howell hoped the NCEA review currently underway would be used as an opportunity to address the issues raised by the research.

Percentage of students enrolled in six NCEA maths standards in 2013 and 2019
NCEA maths standard% of students enrolled: 2013% of students enrolled: 2019
AS1.2 Algebra



AS1.3 Tables, equations and graphs



AS2.6 Algebra



AS2.7 Calculus



AS3.6 Differentiation



AS3.7 Integration