Something Smells of Rotten Rat
We have had, allegedly, a massive improvement of educational achievement in New Zealand secondary schools. It is an allegation because it appears far too good to be true. As the old saying goes, if it smells like a rort, tastes like a rort, and sounds like a rort, it probably is a dinkum rort.
Here is the "improvement":
Well, we hear you saying, you can't argue with statistics; statistics don't lie. On the other hand, our grand pappy used to say, "There are lies, damned lies, and statistics."
The first thing to note is that these achievements come off the back, as it were, of the government setting achievement (that is, pass rate) targets.
The government will reward schools, subsidise more, pay more for those schools achieving higher and higher pass rates. Now, of course, a focus upon the things that matter is usually a really good thing.
But what happens if the measuring stick can be changed? What would we think of the high jump coach who was told, "If you get all your jumpers to jump over the bar, we will make sure you are duly rewarded," only to have the coach lower the bar so that all his students could succeed? You would doubtless draw the correct conclusion that it is all a rort. You would not be wrong.
Is this what is happening here? Sadly, we suspect that is precisely what is happening. Schools can focus upon internally assessed (school marked) standards, to maintain a measure of influence and control over whether students pass or not. They can "steer" pupils towards easier topics within a subject to ensure a pass. All to earn the plaudits of the Minister of Education. All to "prove" improved achievement.
The acid test is how our high school students rank when tested against international standards. And here is where the great New Zealand education rort is exposed. Our international rankings are slip-sliding away.
Emeritus Professor Warwick Elley worries that New Zealand's education system is failing an entire generation. "I worry that it's a dumbing down of a whole population of students," he says.The education establishment is in denial mode. "Nothing to see here. Move along." On cue, NZ educationalists and establishment mandarins chimed in to tell us that New Zealand's PISA scores are just wunnerful. They aren't. Our educational standards are in decline, relative to our international peers.
When Elley chaired the international steering committee for one of the first world literacy surveys, in 1990, Kiwi students came fourth. A decade later, when the Programme for International Students Assessment (Pisa) started testing 15-year-olds, NZ students came second only to Finland in reading, third in maths, and sixth-equal in science.
But it has been downhill ever since. In six three-yearly Pisa surveys, the most recent (2015) reported last December, each group of NZ students has scored lower than the group that went before them in both reading and maths. [NZ Herald, ContraCelsum]
That's why we treat the statistics about increasing pass rates in New Zealand secondary schools with a grain of salt. It's just far, far too good to be true. And if "true", it's not worth the paper its written on.