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How true is the mythical “20% tail of underachievment”?

NZ“One in five students is failing” is a catch cry used so often that PPTA commissioned research to get to the bottom of it. 

The results, presented by researchers Liz Gordon and Brian Easton today, reveal the simplistic nature of the claim and the complex issues being ignored every time it is made.

PPTA president Angela Roberts said the overlapping issues of ethnicity, gender and socio-economic status were ignored when simplistic figures such ‘1 in 5’ or ‘20% of students are failing’ were bandied about.

“The message of there being a crisis in schooling is being used to drive through radical policies, but there is not a crisis. There are challenges and we need to deal with these by recognising the complexity of the issues,” she said.

The government’s practice of separating out a single factor – such as ethnicity – and comparing one sub-group to other whole populations was “statistically grossly misleading” and failed to recognise many of the factors contributing to underachievement, Roberts said.

The closest to the politically popular 20% figure the researchers were able to find was that 14.3% of students failed to achieve proficiency level 2 on PISA reading – and a closer examination of this group showed that 74% were male and that socio-economic factors such as parental income and the number of books in the home were clearly contributing issues.

“Constantly focussing on ethnicity as a single factor fails to recognise these overlapping issues,” Roberts said.

A companion report by Easton also contains data that suggests the constant labelling of ‘underachiever’ has had an impact on how students identify themselves ethnically.

Roberts hoped the research would enable the government to take a more sophisticated and nuanced approach to educational achievement and recognise the dangers of over-simplification.

“We hope that politicians and editorial writers will stop throwing around figures like ‘1 in 5’ and ‘national disgrace’ when in reality the issues are much more complicated.”

For links to the full reports and summaries, go here.

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5 thoughts on “How true is the mythical “20% tail of underachievment”?

  1. Well…..those of us in education knew this of course. Interesting that when most people want to know something they consult an expert ie. someone with experience. However when it comes to education, the government always knows best and ignores expert opinion. Grateful thanks to the researchers who sought to refute this simplistic claim.
    It is merely an attack on public schools in order to discredit and privatise them.


    Posted by Susan McRoberts | July 8, 2013, 6:00 pm
  2. I remember in the 80’s and prior, when there really was an absolute crisis in education, 150% worse than the “alleged” 20% failure rate used to disparage educators and public education in the 21st century.

    I can hear the collective gasp and see tufts of hair waft in on the breeze as collective hair is torn out at the roots. They called it School Certificate and it doomed 50% of the population to failure. It suited the economic times because it put the exam-‘failure’ half of the population into manual and blue collar jobs, while the top half went into politics, economics and education in free tertiary studies.

    In its death throws, School Cert. wallowed in A1, A2, B1, B2, C1 and C2 passes, which passed 81% until it was eventually replaced by NCEA. There might have even been D1 and D2 passes? Unit Standards aimed to pass 70%.

    The crisis is now back, because 80% succeed and there’s a 20% failure rate.

    A government of the people, by the people for the people can fix the 20% by thinking creatively and being socially responsible. What about starting with a ‘living wage’?

    20% failure can be addressed by canning the combative relationship between supporting the public right to quality education, with the limited rights of remora wealthy individuals to make profit from diverting public money into private charter education.

    It can be cured by not selling state-owned assets and instead, using the dividends towards high quality public education and social safety nets to address the 20%.

    Be honest with teachers and stop using statistics to bludgeon through GERM and privatisation of education. Work with teachers not against them.

    Celebrate the 80% pass rate and work with teachers to address the 20% them, don’t denigrate and blame them for it..


    Posted by Petronius Gaius Arbiter | July 8, 2013, 11:10 pm
  3. The tragedy of all this is that none of this information is new, but we lack astute journalists who are willing to take the government to task for their repeated inaccuracy. It is well known that if you repeat a lie often enough even the speaker starts to believe it is truth. This is definitely the case here.


    Posted by Kelvin Woodley | July 9, 2013, 8:47 pm


  1. Pingback: HEADDESK: The queen of misinformation is at it again | Save Our Schools NZ - July 9, 2013

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