When an international report shows New Zealand's maths,
science and reading scores for 15-year-olds are in "absolute
freefall" - to quote Labour's education spokesman, Chris
Hipkins - two questions emerge.
One is, can we trust the test results? The second question
is: if we can, what should we do about it?
New Zealand fell this week from 7th to 13th in reading, from
7th to 18th in science and from 13th to 22nd in maths in the
OECD's Programme for International Study Assessment (Pisa)
report for 2012. The drop can be only partly explained by the
inclusion in the last decade of new city states -
Shanghai-China, Hong Kong-China and Macau-China - which have
test-based education systems and tend to dominate the top of
Some critics have pointed out the international country
rankings are highly suspect, as the test results combine real
data with computer-generated "plausible results".
Danish statistician Sven Kreiner told the Listener this week
that this unreliability could swing Japan's reading ranking
anywhere between 8th and 40th and Britain's from 14th to
However, most experts agree that a country's results, over
time, tell a more reliable story and New Zealand is also
Our scores have declined in all three subjects and the
biggest drop has occurred in the past three years. Maths has
consistently fallen from a mark of 537 and a ranking of 4th
in 2000 to 500 last year, barely above the OECD average. The
trend is consistent with other recent national and
international results. In the 2011 Trends in Mathematics and
Science Study (TIMSS) published a year ago, New Zealand
9-year-olds finished bottom-equal among developed nations.
Half were unable to add 218 and 191.
National testing shows the number of Year 8 (12-year-old)
pupils who could answer a series of simple multiplication
questions correctly within four seconds dropped from 47 per
cent in 2001 to 37 per cent in 2009. Science results
published two weeks ago show that only about 20 per cent of
Year 8 pupils were at or above their expected curriculum
level. University and polytechnic engineering schools have
also complained they cannot fill their places with local
students because most lack basic maths skills and need
extensive remedial help.
Victoria University engineering school head Professor Dale
Carnegie has blamed NCEA for failing to prepare students for
the intellectual rigour of university study.
Education Minister Hekia Parata says she is encouraging
teachers to improve the way they track students' progress all
the way through primary and secondary school, including an
awkward gap in the first two years of secondary school when
National Standards assessment has finished and NCEA has not
But she does not agree with critics who say the new maths
curriculum - which began when the 15-year-olds tested last
year started school - neglects basic arithmetic skills in
favour of problem-solving.
She points to a combination of problems which disadvantaged
this age group. Parata says the new curriculum started just
as schools faced a staff shortage and had to hire many
overseas-trained teachers and beginning teachers trained in
university courses that focused on academic ability.
The Government has since "raised the bar" for teacher entry,
put more emphasis on practical classroom skills and is
spending $10.5 million to boost maths and science teaching.
The Prime Minister's chief science adviser, Sir Peter
Gluckman, says research shows many primary teachers enjoy
teaching science but lose confidence in their ability to
answer children's increasingly complex questions as they get
to intermediate level. He thinks teachers need to be better
prepared for this complexity and the curriculum has to be
presented in a way that engages children.
The third crucial step, he argues, is that families and
communities have to value science - something Asian countries
are well known for but which has not been common in New
- By Andrew Laxon of the New Zealand Herald