No trivial pursuit

Published in Insights, The New Zealand Initiative’s newsletter, 22 July 2022

Don’t get me wrong, I love watching The Chase

However, I wish Stuff had covered New Zealand’s deteriorating education standards instead of running a series of long articles on a British TV trivia show this week.

The paper we released on Tuesday should have been front-page news. We now have hard evidence – from the Education Ministry! – that our education system fails to teach our children how to read, write, and calculate.

New Zealand’s education establishment has pretended for years that rising NCEA pass rates meant improving education results. Since NCEA includes literacy and numeracy requirements, that seemed encouraging.

However, there is a problem: Most of NCEA’s required literacy and numeracy credits can be achieved without much literacy or numeracy. A minor bit of reading in a history class, or a few numbers in a science class, could get the job done.

Students can gain literacy and numeracy credits without being properly tested for either.

Laudably, the Ministry created new, more rigorous reading, writing, and numeracy standards that are directly assessed. We found out about a large trial of these tests via a request under the Official Information Act.

A third of students failed the numeracy test. A third failed the reading test. And two-thirds failed the writing test.

The tests only checked a basic level of literacy and numeracy – not the level that would allow one to study for a university degree. Just enough to get by in modern life. Think of reading a newspaper, writing to a company, and calculating interest payments on a mortgage.

That so many of our students have not mastered the basics after ten years of education is a scandal. In an ideal world, our education system would make students proficient in geography, physics, chemistry, history, biology, music, arts and many more subjects. 

But at the very least, schools should teach students how to read, write and calculate. Our children are wasting their potential if we do not equip them with these skills.

Is the problem a lack of spending? Over their entire school career, teaching each student costs about $100,000. Is it unreasonable to expect them to master some basic skills at that level of spending?

So, yes, learning about the best Chaser is interesting. The information Stuff provided about preparing for TV trivia is certainly helpful.

However, perhaps we should ask how our education system can better prepare our children for their future.

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