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International tests reveal the performance of our schoolchildren is plummeting despite years of education reform designed to create brighter futures for the next generation. Simon Collins asks the experts where it all went wrong.
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.
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.
Over Pisa's 15-year history New Zealand's average score for maths has dropped by more than any other country (down 42 points), closely followed by Australia (down 39 points).
Our average for reading has dropped by 20 points, a steeper fall than in all except three countries (Britain, Australia and Iceland).
Even in science, where we have had ups as well as downs, our average is down 15 points since 2000, although eight other countries including Australia declined more.
These scores are based on tests in which about half the questions are repeated in every survey (and kept a closely guarded secret) so that each new group of 15-year-olds can be compared with those who came before.
Professor John Hattie, formerly of the University of Auckland and now director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute, says both New Zealand and Australia have been too complacent.
New Zealand is still in the top half of the rich-nations' club, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), on all three subjects: sixth out of 35 nations in science, eighth in reading, 16th in maths. It's the trend, not the level, that is the main concern.
Marks in the Pisa tests were scaled to an OECD average of 500 when they started in 2000. Since then we have dropped from 528 to 513 in science, from 529 to 509 in reading, and from 537 to 495 in maths - staying above the OECD maths average only because it has slipped from 500 to 491.