Most primary school children have the listening skills expected of their age group, but only half are making the grade in music and drama, a national study shows.
The latest reports from the National Monitoring Study of Student Achievement (NMSSA) said most children in Years 4 and 8 were performing at the level expected of them in dance and visual arts, and in the English curriculum area of "viewing".
The government-funded study tests about 4400 children on two curriculum areas each year. Its latest reports covered the arts, and two areas of the English curriculum - listening and viewing.
The report said 79 percent of Year 4 children and 70 percent of Year 8 children were performing at the level of the curriculum expected for their age group for listening.
In viewing, which covers children's ability to understand the pictures in stories, 77 percent of Year 4s and 63 percent of Year 8s were achieving at the expected curriculum level.
The results were better than previous rounds of the study covering the other areas of English - reading and writing. In reading, only 59 percent of children were at the expected level and, in writing, only 35 percent of Year 8s were performing as expected.
The study found boys were about one year of achievement behind girls in their average scores for viewing, but only a little behind for listening.
The average scores of children in low-decile schools were about two years behind those of children in high-decile schools for viewing, but about three years behind for listening.
In the arts, achievement rates ranged from 82 percent of Year 4s achieving at the expected level of the curriculum in visual arts to only half in music and drama.
The study's leader, Alison Gilmore from the University of Otago, said the relatively high rates of achievement for listening and viewing were likely because they were less demanding than reading and writing.
"Listening and viewing are less demanding skills and in a sense they are prerequisite skills to the sorts of skills students need to utilise in order to begin to develop their reading and writing," she said.
Principals concerned schools falling behind on arts
Associate Professor Gilmore said the study showed schools need more help with the arts curriculum.
"Teachers need more support in schools to deliver dance and drama and music," she said.
However, she said the visual arts were an exception, with children performing well and teachers feeling confident about teaching the subject.
Principals Federation president Whetu Cormick said the relatively good results for listening and viewing were not because they were easier than reading and writing, but because schools were deliberately helping children develop those skills.
"Teachers are spending a great deal of time giving children opportunities to speak and listen to one another, whether it be one-on-one or in group situations," he said.
Mr Cormick said the mixed results for the arts were not so good.
He said schools were spending less time on the arts because they were concentrating on reading, writing and maths because of the National Standards, and trainee teachers were getting less preparation in arts teaching than in the past.
Mr Cormick said the arts were not a less important curriculum area than reading, writing and maths.
"We value the arts in our wider community, so therefore children should be given the opportunity to be involved in these to explore their own creative potential," he said.
Listening skills 'impact learning in other areas'
Massey University senior education lecturer Alison Sewell said the high scores in listening were a good sign, especially the "phenomenal" figure of 79 percent for Year 4 students.
"It's testament to the great work our New Zealand primary teachers are doing in the classroom," she said.
"I'm really surprised, I think historically New Zealand children haven't been very good at listening skills, so that's a great outcome."
Dr Sewell said listening was a skill that children needed to be taught, and she was worried that Māori and Pasifika students had lower average scores than other children.
"It is disappointing that once again we've got this disparity of outcomes for our Māori and Pasifika students," she said.
"With listening and viewing, that has an impact on their learning in other areas. If they're not able to listen well and not able to use visual language that's going to impact their learning in maths and science and other areas so it is important to get right."
Ministry of Education acting deputy secretary Karl Le Quesne said the ministry was redesigning professional learning for teachers to help schools improve the areas that were most important for their students.
He said a recent ministry survey found primary teachers wanted more practical resources in the arts.
"We are considering how the NMSSA findings informs the total picture we have on achievement for the arts and English," Mr Le Quesne said.