Scientific Literacy and PISA

Dr Eric Crampton
Insights Newsletter
6 December, 2019

One of the underappreciated joys of parenthood is lying to your children.

Children are full of questions. Sometimes, questions deserve straight answers. But not always.

If the kid is just too lazy to think through something, or if you really don’t know the real answer, it can be great fun to invent an absurd explanation and see how long it takes for the child to notice. It’s fun for the parent, and it helps the child learn how to detect … well, the right word wouldn’t make it through email filters. Let’s go with horsehockey.

That experience makes me just a bit suspicious about the explanations we’re getting for New Zealand’s continued declining PISA scores. A lot of the answers sound like the kinds of horsehockey I’ll sometimes invent at home.

The Ministry of Education’s Craig Jones, according to Stuff, pointed to technology “as a notable 21st-century distraction” that might explain drops in interest in reading – a potential explanation for falling test scores.

If I tried that one on with my kids, I’d really hope that they might prod me a little. It isn’t just New Zealand’s overall score that dropped; New Zealand’s ranking also dropped. And technology is a notable distraction everywhere. You can’t use something that affects all countries to explain a change in one country’s ranking. Kids everywhere play Fortnite.

Dr Jones did make pretty clear it is hard to tell why New Zealand’s results keep sliding. It might be important that we figure this one out; I’m confident that Dr Jones cares about getting the right answer.

Education Minister Chris Hipkins said the PISA results demonstrated the failure of national standards. But you can’t trick us that easily, Minister Hipkins! National standards were introduced for children aged 5-12 at the beginning of the 2010 school year. PISA tests 15-year-olds. And the biggest decline in New Zealand’s PISA ranking happened between 2009 and 2012, with a steady but slower decline since. Maybe the decline would have been even worse without national standards; the PISA results alone can’t tell us.

So I wonder whether official responses to the PISA results are a test of the broader public’s scientific literacy. We should be able to recognise the answers so far as horsehockey.

Making up stories is fun with the kids. But getting to the truth about our failing education system matters. Not sorting it out – that really would be horsehockey.

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