• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ
Photo/Getty Images

Must do better: Why Kiwi teens are sliding on international tests

As New Zealand teens face sinking achievement levels, Warwick Elley looks at what it will take to make our kids star performers again.

As about 50,000 Year 11 students prepare to face up to the challenge of their first NCEA, and Education Minister Chris Hipkins ponders on its proposed reforms, we should reflect on some inconvenient truths. Recently, the OECD released results of its seventh Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) survey. Once again our 15-year-olds have declined in mathematics, reading and science, just as they have in each survey since 2000. At that time, our students were given widespread praise for being star performers in the first PISA survey. How things have changed. Little by little we have been sinking to mediocre levels in a slow race to the bottom. Most countries’ achievement levels remain relatively stable from one survey to the next, and a few have gained ground, but New Zealand, Australia and the Netherlands have sunk the farthest. Surely this is unacceptable.

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.

In my submission to the NCEA Taskforce of 2018, I listed 24 deficiencies in our model of standards-based assessment. Some elaborated on the impossibility of defining and assessing clear standards in complex academic subjects. Others explained why our achievement levels are in constant freefall.
Photo/Getty Images

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.

Photo/Getty Images

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.

For more on the political, cultural and literary life of the country, follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and sign up to our weekly newsletter.