That’s the thing about rankings – someone has to come last.

“Teens struggling at English and maths

December 7, 2010


The English and mathematics abilities of Australian teenagers have plummeted during the past decade, a new international education report has shown.

The triennial OECD Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests measure how well 15-year-olds from around the world use their knowledge and skills in reading, mathematics and science to meet real-life challenges.

Sixty-five OECD and partner nations took part in PISA 2009 including about 14,000 Australian students from 353 schools.

It's the fourth cycle of PISA testing Australia has participated in since it began in 2000.

Historically, Australia has performed at significantly higher levels than the OECD average in all three assessment areas: reading, maths and scientific literacy.

But in last year's tests, Australia was outperformed by Finland, Korea, Canada, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Singapore.

In reading literacy, Australia was the only high-performing country to show a significant decline in performance, while in maths Australia was outperformed by 12 nations…”

Ok, there may have been a decline. It may all come down to poor funding, lack of performance pay for teachers, an increase in computer use, the unions, a lack of phonics, or the aliens controlling student thought. I’m quite happy to look at data that actually documents a decline in what students are capable of doing, and listen to theories about the reasons and what can be done.

But I want to examine the fallacy of the article I’ve partially quoted above. There is no validity to the assumption that just because we’ve slipped in the rankings that “the English and mathematics abilities of students have plummeted”. To give an analogy, imagine an athlete in my mid-twenties who can run fifteen hundred metres in three minutes fifty seconds. Every time he runs, he wins. One year, three teenagers who have been steadily making improvement all run a sub three minutes fifty second time. he finishes in fourth place.


In fact, he may have run a personal best. The thing about rankings is they don’t tell us anything about ACTUAL performance, they only tell us about RELATIVE performance.

And thus with the obsession with testing, and school rankings. A school could potentially move up the rankings just by other schools falling backwards, but, hey, we all know that’s not going to happen. Once data on school’s is published we all know that teachers will stop taking it easy, and actually start trying, and then ALL schools will improve. Even the one’s coming last, and no-one in those schools will be accused of struggling.

Oh wait, yes they will. Because they’ll still be last, and that’s never good enough!

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