Schools are shuffling Maori and Pacific Island students into "easy" subjects to boost NCEA results, according to new research.
A mentoring group's report revealed disadvantaged students were on an "educational dead-end" as softer subjects tended to shut the door on tertiary study and good jobs.
The Sunday Star-Times reported last week that the number of students studying science and maths had fallen in the past decade, while subjects like sports, tourism and drama had risen.
The Education Ministry denies schools are behind the push, but the Government has admitted there is a problem. Education Minister Hekia Parata cited government research in May that raised concerns about a mismatch between Pacific Island student ambitions and the subjects they chose.
Research by mentoring group I Have a Dream, which followed pupils from an Auckland school through to year 13, found the mismatch was because Maori and Pacific Island students were steered into soft subjects.
Last week, as many teenagers flocked to the mall these holidays, five girls from the mentoring group gathered at a cabin south of Auckland. Gripping their university application forms, the girls spoke of a "vibe" in classrooms towards them, as if teachers did not see a point in trying.
All five said they would have dropped out without the mentoring. One, Salote Makasin, said she felt pressured to take "dumb" subjects. "We just thought about passing NCEA, not what subjects to take. By year 13 it's too late, you couldn't get into those [university-required] subjects. They should have given us advice at year 11."
The students said their parents were unable to give advice because English was a second language, or they didn't understand NCEA.
With help from mentors, Makasin had upped her ambitions from being a hairdresser to a doctor, but for many Pacific Island and Maori students, the future was bleak.
Dream project co-ordinator Ant Backhouse said schools treated softer subjects as a dumping ground for struggling students.
"Schools are accountable for the results and each department is accountable. It's probably a lot easier to put a kid in a subject they know they are going to pass, as opposed to taking risks and trying to give them the support they need."
Pressure to have good results came from the ministry, and the fear of league tables, he said.
Secondary Principals' Association president Patrick Walsh said he had heard of some students, particularly Maori and Pacific Islanders, being put into courses seen as easy.
A recent Ministry of Pacific Island Affairs report also cited evidence of teachers directing students into non-University Entrance NCEA courses, limiting their options for further education.
But a ministry spokesperson said schools did provide advice for learners, and it was checked by the Education Review Office. "It's important to remember that degree-level study is the post-school option for less than a third of school leavers."
A new government initiative, vocational pathways, had also been set up to make it clearer to students how their learning related to a wide range of work and study. School boards were responsible for establishing programmes to guide students.
Makasin said she did not receive advice from teachers about relevant subjects during her junior years, but with help from Dream tutors her university application to study medicine was in the post. "My parents are so proud of me, and I'm not even a doctor yet."
- Sunday Star Times