At this time of the year, all sensible teenagers and their parents are focused on nothing more academically demanding than a good book at the beach. But all too soon students will be back at school and questions will resume about about how well our education system prepares them for later life. Although the Government continues to trumpet rising National Standards and NCEA results, two international reports published late in 2016 pointed to a much murkier picture.

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is considered a benchmark for student achievement around the world. It measures how well 15-year-olds can apply their knowledge to real-life problems in maths, science and reading. The 2015 test covered 540,000 students across the OECD and New Zealand's results can best be described as mixed. Our students moved back up the rankings, from 18th to 12th, in science, 23rd to 21st in maths and 13th to 10th in reading. But our scores actually fell slightly compared with the 2012 test, indicating that other countries had simply dropped faster. The biggest relief was that a dramatic fall in all three subjects from 2009 to 2012 seems to have bottomed out.

Results from the 2015 Trends in Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), which tested Year 5 and Year 9 students in 57 countries, are even less encouraging. Our Year 5 students (mostly 10-year-olds) ranked worst in the English-speaking world for both maths and science. A Ministry of Education report said the average New Zealand student answered fewer than half the maths questions correctly, even after the removal of some problems which were more advanced than our curriculum. Our students were at their weakest on knowing mathematical concepts, procedures and facts.

Opponents say the testing tends to favour more traditional styles of learning practised in Asian countries and, in the case of PISA, produces statistically flawed results, which don't reflect the average achievement of all participating students. These may be valid criticisms but local studies show the same decline, especially in maths.


A 2013 National Monitoring Study of Student Achievement report carried out by the University of Otago found less than half (41 per cent) of Year 8 students were achieving expectations in maths in their final year before secondary school. Yet National Standards data relied on by Government showed teachers believed 69 per cent of students were "at or above" the level required in 2014.

There is no room for complacency about reading either. Tertiary Education Commission research this year revealed that 40 percent of Year 12 students who met official NCEA literacy and numeracy requirements fell below the OECD minimum for a knowledge economy.

The solutions are complex, ranging from better-trained maths teachers in primary schools to reworking NCEA so that students, parents and teachers understand that some credits are much more equal than others. In the meantime, we should pay close attention to independent research on student achievement and treat any results linked to national targets with a healthy dose of scepticism.