As New Zealand teens face sinking achievement levels, Warwick Elley looks at what it will take to make our kids star performers again.
What do these floundering countries have in common? All three are using a standards-based exam system such as NCEA and all publish their schools’ league tables. Only six OECD nations follow these two toxic policies. All are in trouble, and mystified.
The predicament that some of us forecast at the outset appeared first in the huge, implausible changes in NCEA pass rates from one year to the next. However, a series of Band-Aid policy changes, adapted from the previous era, led to delusions of adequacy for a time, but none could stop our relentless declines in achievement levels.
Chief among the causes was the enormous range of fragmented subjects on offer for students to study. Not surprisingly, many cherry-picked the easier ones, leaving huge gaps in their knowledge, and reducing their ability to see cross-connections within subjects.
When students had reached the required number of credits to gain a pass, many slacked off. There are more interesting activities for active adolescents to spend time on. Besides, you could always have another shot if you missed the first time.
The published league tables increased competition between schools and imposed pressures on teachers to pass as many students as possible. There were model answers provided for the more easily predictable exam questions. For the internally assessed ones, many teachers trained students on the very tasks they were going to assess them on when it counted. Therefore, teachers spent more time coaching and less time teaching, and students spent more time memorising and less on developing their thinking skills. Interestingly, few European countries use league tables as a form of accountability.
Also, there has been too much internal assessment. The vague wording of the required standards and the clumsy, ineffective moderation procedures allowed teachers too much leniency around the borderlines.
These and other weaknesses resulted in a deterioration equivalent to one year in the abilities of our students. Counting six nations, three subjects and six PISA surveys, standards-based assessment has had 108 opportunities to boost achievement levels in PISA and other international surveys, but has consistently failed to do so. The much-vaunted flexibility of NCEA has been bought at a huge cost.
However, Sweden’s example could be instructive. In early PISA surveys, its students slumped consistently, just like ours. Then in 2011, authorities introduced some rigorous reforms. Compulsory subjects were increased and core instructional content spelt out, rampant grade inflation arrested, grading systems refined, school inspections increased and public reporting of school results reduced. Sweden’s PISA results are slowly recovering, but are still below expectation.
As a way of evaluating the ability of our 15-year-olds, PISA has much to commend it. The application skills assessed are very important. The tests are prepared by professionals, screened for cultural bias by representatives of each country, then pre-tested and revised. The whole procedure is carefully monitored, using state-of-the-art analytic techniques. We cannot blame the messenger for our bad news. NCEA needs a wholesale overhaul if we are ever to restore our reputation as star performers.
Warwick Elley is an emeritus professor of education with experience in international surveys of school achievement.
This article was first published in the February 1, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.