Thursday 27 October 2022

Passing The Tests.

Professional Failure: New Zealand’s education system – once celebrated as one of the most successful in the world – is in free-fall. By all the recognised international comparators, we are failing – and failing fast. So bad have things become that it is increasingly difficult to find a sufficient number of willing and able participants to make our international test-results robust enough, statistically, to stand comparison.

BY 2024, this country’s education system is supposed to be delivering competency in literacy and numeracy to all young New Zealanders. What used to be called the “Three Rs” – readin’, ‘ritin’, ‘rithmetic – should have been mastered by all but a handful of students heading into NCEA examinations. Ominously, our education system is far from achieving this most basic of objectives.

The Ministry of Education has been trialing the NCEA assessment tests that it plans to have in place by 2024. The first trial-run took place last year, the second in July of this year, and the results of both trial-runs are dire. Of the approximately 16,000 Year Ten students (14-15 year-olds) tested in July, only 34 percent achieved a “pass” in writing; 56 percent in maths; and 64 percent in reading. These results differ only marginally from those obtained in 2021.

That is to say, after ten years of schooling, only a third of young New Zealanders can write coherently; only half possess basic computational skills; and only two-thirds can cope adequately with a level of written communication fundamental to success in adult life.

These numbers represent a scarcely believable tale of professional failure across New Zealand’s education system. What it reveals is a society that is rapidly losing the ability (if it hasn’t already lost it) to keep itself going – let alone improve itself – on the basis of its own human resources.

Try to imagine the response of New Zealand’s principal export markets if tests revealed that no more than two-thirds of its livestock could be described as healthy. Or if, by other measures, that fraction of healthy animals fell to a half, and then to a third. People would demand to know how the Ministry of Primary Industries could possibly have missed such a catastrophic decline. They would demand to know what it was doing to lift the overall level of New Zealand’s livestock health.

The livestock analogy is brutal, but a level of brutality is warranted here – if only to wake New Zealanders up to the perilous situation in which they now find themselves. For decades, we have been telling ourselves that the best way to make our country wealthier, fairer, and happier was by educating its young people to the highest possible international standard. We looked at countries with world-beating education systems – and test results – like Singapore and Finland, and assumed that theirs was the level of performance to which our own educational experts aspired.

Clearly, that was an unwarranted assumption. New Zealand’s education system – once celebrated as one of the most successful in the world – is in free-fall. By all the recognised international comparators, we are failing – and failing fast. So bad have things become that it is increasingly difficult to find a sufficient number of willing and able participants to make our international test-results robust enough, statistically, to stand comparison. In a telling sign of the times, this dearth of suitable participants is being presented by some school principals as a signal that it is time for New Zealand to abandon international comparisons altogether.

Thankfully, at both the political and bureaucratic levels, New Zealand’s perilous decline has been noted and remedial action demanded. By 2024, the slide must stop. No ifs, no buts, no maybes. The call has come very late, and, tragically, it is likely to be resisted.

Across academia, in the teacher unions, and increasingly at the chalk-face, the whole notion of education being an international enterprise, in which young New Zealanders must be able to participate (and compete) with confidence, is being rejected. In its place, “progressive” educators are erecting a system geared to rectifying the cultural and social inequities arising out of New Zealand’s colonial past.

With increasing vehemence, international standards are rejected as “Eurocentric” – or even “white supremacist” – weapons for obliterating the unique insights of indigenous cultures. The bitter letter-to-the-Listener struggle over the merits of “Western Science” versus “Mātaurānga Māori”, was but the tip of the ontological iceberg currently ripping a massive hole, albeit well below the waterline of public perception, in New Zealand’s education system.

The extent to which this debate has progressed is revealed in the responses to the shocking performance revealed in the trial-run NCEA assessment tests. According to a post on the RNZ website, “independent evaluators” are concerned that: “New literacy and numeracy tests could lower NCEA achievement rates among Māori and Pacific students.”

“They’ve gone back to the ark with these one-off tests which is just ridiculous”, fumed Peter Brooks, Principal of Fryberg High School. “I don’t know where this idea came from that you could test for literacy and numeracy on one day, online, just on computers. It’s just fraught with problems. To me it’s a giant leap backwards in terms of determining whether the kid’s literate or numerate or not.”

A report by Evaluation Associates Ltd identified “a risk fewer priority learners – which included many Māori and Pacific learners, those from low socio-economic backgrounds, and students with special education needs – would achieve an NCEA qualification once the tests were introduced.”

That a disproportionate number of Māori and Pasifika New Zealanders remain concentrated in the lowest socio-economic groups is one of the saddest constants of New Zealand sociology. Breaking the dismal cycle of low incomes, low expectations, low educational attainment, has eluded successive governments operating in the neoliberal era. Convincing Treasury, the business community, and the broader electorate, to endorse the level of spending required to transform the education sector into a credible mechanism for Māori and Pasifika escape from structural disadvantage, is a goal our politicians have yet to set themselves – let alone achieve.

In part, this failure is explained by the unwillingness of the more privileged sectors of our society to state with brutal clarity that breaking free of the dismal cycle of “lows” will only ever be achieved by aiming and scoring “high”. Parents must be told that there will be no special pleading; no softening of standards; no blaming of history. Their children must pass the tests, and they must help them pass the tests. The New Zealand state can build schools, and it can train teachers, but it cannot instill a determination in young Māori and Pasifika to be educated to the fullest extent of their powers.

It must also be made brutally clear that if young New Zealanders – preponderantly Māori and Pasifika – do not acquire the skills needed to run their own country, then their own country will be run by those who do have the skills. Increasingly, these managers and professionals will not even be Pakeha, but people from far-off places, with little or no empathy for the indigenous culture of Aotearoa.

The best way Pakeha New Zealanders can undo the damage of colonisation is to offer Māori an education system equal to the both the expectations of the rest of the world, and to the promises contained in te Tiriti o Waitangi. The best way for Māori to achieve tino rangatiratanga is to take that offer – and ace the tests.

This essay was originally posted on the website on Monday, 24 October 2022.


Odysseus said...

When you abolish Latin in your national exam system and elevate Kapa Haka instead what do you expect? We don't do education any longer in this country, we force feed neo-Marxist indoctrination and Critical Race Theory. The Ministry of Education needs to be disestablished and Charter schools must be restored if we are to have any chance of picking ourselves up off the floor. Our future as a country is unbelievably bleak.

Gary Peters said...

"but it cannot instill a determination in young Māori and Pasifika to be educated to the fullest extent of their powers."

And yet some do. We have many maori at the highest levels of achievement in New Zealand based on merit not "positive discrimination".

We all know that the desire for education starts in the home so why do so many expect the State to usurp that responsibility?

Until we stop pandering to those that do not value education allowing them to rob their children of a future nothing will change. Maybe Charter Schools and Bill English's welfare reforms were a viable addition to the current failing system.

Allan Alach said...

As someone has already observed, the poor secondary results are from pupils who attend primary school in the National Standards era. Many of us (principals and teachers) worked very hard at the time to try to stop the then National led government from introducing National Standards. There was, and still is, much overseas evidence that showed that a standards based programme would not raise achievement, in fact the opposite, and it is tragic now to observe that this is indeed happening. Internationally acknowledged educators were aghast when they heard that National Standards were being imposed. Going even further back, the deterioration started in the early 1990s when the curriculum was rewritten to bring in Achievement Standards for every subject. At the same time dedicated teachers colleges were swallowed up by the universities, meaning that the practical hands on teacher education provided by the mostly former teachers who had shifted into teachers colleges, was no more, replaced by increasingly academic studies led by academics who had no classroom experience at all. And all this was due to politicians thinking they knew more about education than the actual experts. Prior to 1990 NZ primary education was respected around the world and educators from all over used to come to check out what we were doing .That no longer is the case. And so it goes.

Ricardo said...

I had occasion to peruse some answers to a mathematics exam once, not that long ago. While unsatisfactory overall, I thought they showed some promise and with concentrated effort could be improved to an acceptable level for the average 16 year old.

I was most disappointed to then be informed that they were in fact results from the last student teachers' round of tests.

Chris is correct. A population that can't read, write or calculate will soon be serfs in their own land, beholden to a class that can.

Archduke Piccolo said...

There is no room for ideology in education - except perhaps as a topic of learning. Ideology leads to indoctrination instead of education; and indoctrination inhibits enquiry - or any other testing of the learning received. One certainly forms the impression that these soi-disant 'progressives' are more interested in indoctrinating their captured charges rather than having them learning anything useful.

Keep politics out of education.
Ion A. Dowman



Now that's "tellin em" ... CT.

Every word a gem ... of honest, you say: "Brutal" ... words of incontrovertible TRUTH.

We all know this "Truth" so why do our gummunt and the teachers Unions ... and some of their devotees not ... GET IT?

A good all-round Education and an ability to develop measurable proven excellence at all levels on a national scale, is the most powerful influence for our Country's future prosperity.

Oh dear. AI and Robots anyone?

Brendan McNeill said...


It’s difficult to avoid being a Cassandra these days, where ever we look the social indicators are increasingly negative; be it housing, youth offending, policing, health care, and now education all are in disarray.

Can those who presided over the educational failure of our children facilitate the necessary turn around? Would our students be any further disadvantaged if the entire department of education was disbanded?

The greater folly is to believe the Government knows best when it comes to the education of your children. Clearly they do not. For decades now insightful parents have taken responsibility for their children’s educational outcomes, regardless of what type of school they attend. It’s OK to outsource the education of your children, but you would be foolish to think the time they spend in the classroom is all they need.

Reading to your children from an early age and introducing them to a world of wonder and beauty when they are young is one of the best gifts you can give them, along with a loving and stable family environment.

I have some sympathy for teachers having four in my immediate family, two of whom are still practising. Teachers are typically dedicated and resourceful, but they cannot make up for parental failure, missing fathers and a toxic home life.

But yes, educational failure on the present scale would indicate we are a country without a future, at least not one with our present standard of living, or relative social stability. Is it within the power of any Government to fix this?

Shane McDowall said...

I agree with everything you say.

But here's the thing, many educated New Zealanders flee New Zealand to greener pastures overseas, especially Australia.

If someone leaves school when they are 16, the taxpayer has spent about $170,000 on their education.If they complete high school the cost is a shade over $200,000.

These figures do not include health care or other state expenditure.

New Zealand is training nurses for Australia and the Philippines is training nurses for New Zealand. This is insanity.

Dean said...

Well said, when I was working in the state system in a large West Auckland high school 30 years ago, it was exactly the same problems and arguments but now the stakes are even higher why has nothing improved since when I left the state system in 1997?

DS said...

Obvious point: Finland doesn't have standardised tests. The country most obsessed with such things is the United States, which has a truly appalling education system.

(My mother worked in the USA as a teacher for several years. She says she spent endless hours marking tests, rather than teaching).

greywarbler said...

There was a system for some secondary students to spend some class time in job training. It helped one fellow I know greatly. Called Star Plan I think. Incorporate something practical and change the stats. Get good suitable employers - firm and pleasant. Remember that some kids will have got into thieving ways so watch out for tools.

greywarbler said...

This is an extensive report on established bullying practices that are concreted in apparently. It's more than one or two reports.
No wonder that there is such a vicious violent streak in NZ if this is what has been allowed to get prominence under Tomorrow's Schools and more school autonomy.

And note the rote following of positive behaviour practices. There needs to be a values behaviour put up first that feeds into positive behaviour. The 'do as you would be done by' slogan.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

"There is no room for ideology in education "
Perhaps not, but there should at least be room for the truth which conservatives don't seem to want. And it's conservatives all over the world that are in fact introducing ideology into education – viz Ron DeSantis. The hard right want "patriotic history". Whatever that is. It certainly won't be accurate history though.

greywarbler said...

Brendan McN says it all!
Can those who presided over the educational failure of our children facilitate the necessary turn around? Would our students be any further disadvantaged if the entire department of education was disbanded?

My mind picks up on remembered phrases - often from songs - so what comes is 'When will they ever learn.' Having remembered that I then go on to remember the song - Peter Paul and Mary's 'Where Have All the Flowers Gone'.
Now there is an example of memory training that may be used more - words, equations, sung to music which goes to a special place in the brain - they have found this with alzheimers sufferers.

Anonymous said...

There’s a very simple solution to prevent the attrition of the Phillipino nurses who come here.

Stop. Importing. Cuties.

I’m serious. These attractive, slim young women have proved themselves to be happy to shack up with unattractive, uneducated men twice their age in a heartbeat. It’s time we only let the truly hideous applicants in.

D'Esterre said...

"....whether the kid’s literate or numerate..."

I'm irritated by teachers who use the term "kid" as opposed to "child" or "teenager ". It seems patronising or possibly disrespectful.

"Breaking the dismal cycle of low incomes, low expectations, low educational attainment..."

This is a class issue. The misfortunes of life meant that my family grew up in poverty. We made it our business to escape it: finish school, get school qualifications, then post-school training or higher education, and the good jobs which followed.

It's up to individuals to get themselves out of poverty. The fact that so many of Maori descent in our generation managed to do it, is testament to the fact that it can be done.

" cannot instill a determination in young Māori and Pasifika to be educated to the fullest extent of their powers."

My late mother was a high school teacher in the 1970s. I recall her frustration that some academically capable pupils had no motivation to succeed. They were working-class (as we then said), both pakeha and of Maori descent.

I used to wonder if the education system as it then was disadvantaged Maori children. Then we had the huge influx of immigration from Asia. Those children by and large did well in our schools. And I realised that class is indeed the issue. Not ethnicity.

Anonymous said...

Well, I was in broad agreement until three paragraphs from the end, when Trotter started blaming parents. I spent just under a decade teaching in a low decile, multicultural school. The parents (or sometimes grandparents) wanted their kids to succeed.

There are huge problems with the ational standards based system, but it's not the fault of those parents. It's much bigger than that.

Ross F said...

Gary Peters says

"We all know that the desire for education starts in the home....."

Do we? Clearly a huge number of Kiwi parents don't have that desire for their kids. Even taking the time to read to the kids is apparently beyond many of them. Did their parents read to them or take an interest in their school work? Probably not. But running up and down the sideline yelling at their kids on a Saturday morning - no problem. The same energy applied to fostering their kids education leading to a half decent job and livelihood, would be energy well spent. In my early 1960s high school B stream entry class there were two Maori students out of 35. One went on to be a Public Service senior manager,the other "screened" to the same ability level as the first, left upon turning 15yo without passing any exams. Is this all the school's fault?