Nicholas Jones

Nicholas Jones is the New Zealand Herald’s education reporter.

Schools' test-focus queried

Professor Yong Zhao.
Professor Yong Zhao.

New Zealand's children will lose out on jobs if the schooling system becomes too focused on tests and traditional measures of achievement, a visiting expert has warned.

Professor Yong Zhao, the presidential chair at the University of Oregon's College of Education, said a focus on measuring traditional success risked producing homogenous, compliant workers ill-suited for a modern economy.

In the country as a guest of the NZEI education union, Professor Zhao told business leaders and academics that a focus on international test rankings was misguided.

When Shanghai, China ranked first in reading, writing and mathematics in the latest international standardised testing, it caused much angst in Western countries including the United States, Professor Zhao said.

The results were called a "Sputnik" moment, referencing the satellite which symbolised the Soviet Union's lead in the space race.

New Zealand's Education Minister Hekia Parata frequently refers to international rankings, and champions the use of student achievement data as a way to target support to where it is most needed.

Professor Zhao, who was born and educated in China and met Ms Parata yesterday afternoon, said it was wrong to equate the best test scores with the best education system.

He said that in China and other high performing countries there was much soul-searching about whether their education systems were producing graduates who could think for themselves and creatively - who might become the next Steve Jobs, the late co-founder of Apple.

There was often an inverse relationship between high test scores and children's enjoyment of, or confidence in, a subject. And it was precisely those measures that were important for entrepreneurship and creativity - essential traits for the jobs of tomorrow.

Professor Zhao said creative jobs had been on the rise since the 1970s, as manufacturing and other traditional roles were replaced by machines and technology. "Black collar" workers - a term named after Jobs' turtleneck - were now needed.

"Schools have always been responsible for producing the traditional middle class ... we are facing a new economy, it is an economical re-setting.

"I want to warn the New Zealand Government - you may be raising your test scores, but you may be losing something else, and that might be very important for the future."

Bennett Medary, chairman of the New Zealand Information and Communication Technologies Group, told the meeting it reflected the fact there were 15,000 vacant jobs in the technology industry.

"What we lament is the lack of creativity, of empathy, of the ability to work in teams, resilience and ambition - those softer attributes.

"Yet on the other hand I understand that stakeholders, parents and so on, would be very concerned about allowing students simply to discover themselves through education through this kind of random pathway, of passion and interests."

Professor Zhao said knowledge should still be the focus of school, but it would be better to enable students to seek out what interests them, so that they stay engaged.

What's best for students?

* Zhao says obsession with test results ultimately hurts students' employability.
* Countries that top international tests often churn out graduates with little creativity.
* Knowledge should still be the focus of school, but it would be better to enable students to seek out what interests them, so they stay engaged.

- NZ Herald

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