Otago Daily Times
Being good at tests counts
RECENT news about New Zealand’s declining position in international educational assessment rankings has been treated as if it is a new phenomenon requiring drastic changes to the school system.
But some suggested solutions, such as the Principals Federation’s call for greater involvement by the Ministry of Education in curriculum decisions, seem simplistic. Problems in education are more complex and relate to the relationship of schooling to society in general.
It’s worth noting that when these international largescale assessments (e.g. PISA and TIMSS) were first deployed in the 1990s, New Zealand scored in the top five or 10 of all participating countries at year 5, year 8 and year 11. Since then scores have fallen to the middle of the pack, although slightly above average.
This is disappointing, but before we become overly concerned, a number of factors need to be considered.
The international tests can only test those things that are readily evaluated on either paper or a screen with text. Of all the things that are valuable to our children, these tests measure a very narrow, albeit important, slice of the school curriculum.
While the international test agencies do everything they can to ensure test content is valid for every society, it is clear that routinely taking tests makes a small contribution to greater success. Practice always improves performance.
Unfortunately, by the time New Zealand children reach 15 (PISA measurement age) they will have had very little opportunity to take multiplechoice tests at school.
Many schools conduct yearly standardised tests provided by the New Zealand Council for Educational Research (NZCER) or the electronic assessment tools for teaching and learning (easTTle) system.
But that is very little compared to children from countries with a heavy use of testing to motivate and select students, such as China, Japan, Korea and India. Most of the world’s children get tested; New Zealand’s not so much. try very hard. This is true of students in Nordic countries, too.
In contrast, research is showing that students in Shanghai, for example, treat a test that matters to their country’s reputation nearly as seriously as tests with individual consequences.
New Zealand’s lower scores may simply reflect lower effort on a test that doesn’t personally matter to students.
Although international rankings have declined over the past two decades, it was clear from an overview of New Zealand achievement data from 15 years ago that there was a large discrepancy between what the New Zealand curriculum expected of children and their actual performance.
This was most notable for Maori and Pasifika children and for those in lower decile schools. Despite the 2007 curriculum review, little has been done in New Zealand to close this gap before students enter secondary schooling.