By Eric Crampton 29/08/2018


John Gerritsen at RNZ picks up last week’s NBER study on how the PISA rankings would change were students to take the test more seriously and rounds up some local reaction:

Michael Johnston, senior lecturer in education at Victoria University, said the study’s assumption that New Zealand students were not trying hard enough if they left questions unanswered might not be correct.

Dr Johnston said it might be a by-product of the NCEA assessment system.

“In NCEA students can opt out of certain standards and certain aspects of assessment and still get credits for what they do, whereas in most other countries that’s not true,” he said.

“So if our students are used to that way of thinking about assessment then perhaps that’s why they show up as being more likely to be what the researchers call non-serious.”

Dr Johnston said NCEA could be improved, but it should not be changed merely in order to improve the country’s PISA scores.

“That would be a perverse thing to do,” he said.

A bit of context is likely necessary: New Zealand’s rise in the rankings, were everyone to take the test seriously in all countries, is second only to Portugal’s. So the problem affects New Zealand’s ranking far more than it does most countries’ ranking.

I agree with Michael that it would be odd to re-jig NCEA just to goose the PISA numbers.

But I wonder whether the habits some of these kids get at NCEA carry over to university – to their detriment.

Once you hit university, you don’t have standards, you have proper courses. You have to learn all of the material in the course if you want to do well, and you can’t opt out of the parts of it that you don’t like. The exams at mid-year and at year-end are comprehensive, across the whole of the material covered in the paper, rather than just little unit tests after each chunk of learning. And deciding at the end of the year not to do the exam doesn’t mean that you just get no score and no record of having attempted, it means you get a fail.

I agree with Richard Dykes’ suggestion later in the RNZ article that teaching to the PISA test would be a poor idea. Reminding kids that those kinds of tests require filling in all the answers, and handing out an old one for the kids to practice with at home if they’ve never seen that kind of test before, does seem a good idea.