PISA scores – A good reminder

by Sir Peter Gluckman
New Zealand from space with stars above. Elements of this image furnished by NASA.

The PISA scores were released yesterday by the OECD in Paris. Unsurprisingly, they have a number of countries – including New Zealand – pondering a changed place in the rankings. There’s no doubt that we are disappointed and concerned to see how our students have fared in these global rankings, but I think we need to put the issue in context.

A caveat: there are always limitations to these sorts of exercises, which the authors acknowledge at the outset. This is because such metrics attempt to make objective comparisons across a diverse range of highly variable situations both within and between countries. But these limitations notwithstanding, there is no denying PISA’s utility and the importance of understanding our performance trends over time. It is just as important, however, to understand that learning contexts are notoriously difficult to capture in these exercises, and that context matters – especially when it comes to devising mitigating strategies and appropriate interventions.

Indeed, there is no quick fix for raising student performance; success is the product of multiple internal and external factors, and the results of the National Monitoring survey (NMSSA), announced last week, have given us an important edge in these efforts. Unlike the PISA system, our own NMSSA offers a snapshot of science achievement levels together with data from student and teacher interviews that provide a more complete picture of the situation in New Zealand. With this, we now have clear national data derived through an appropriate mix of quantitative and qualitative methodologies, to show where intervention is needed most for students, for teachers and, I would add, for families and communities.

New Zealand needs to address some deep-seeded contextual issues in science teaching and learning, including curriculum relevance, teacher confidence especially in the primary years, and the role of parents, families and whānau in developing the ‘science capital’ that can inspire students toward STEM subjects and maintain their enthusiasm. I suspect these are major factors that could explain some of the country differences suggested by PISA.

Our new understanding of student science achievement in years 4 and 8, via the NMSSA results, is aimed at precisely the right target years for intervention. If young New Zealanders are to be better equipped in key subjects by age 15, we can’t leave it until they hit secondary school. This is exactly what last week’s Government response to the Challenge put forward by the National Science Challenges Panel, which I chaired, is designed to address.

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