The biggest change currently happening in New Zealand education is the implementation of national standards in our primary schools. It’s been predictably controversial, and the arguments on both sides have, by now, been well rehearsed. Nevertheless, indulge me while I summarise them quickly, in order to make a point that seems to me to have been missed by much of the commentary.
The grand narrative of the Government’s move is simple enough: although we have a world class education system, the one glaring area of underperformance is at the tail of attainment, where a significant portion of students appear to be left behind. The key to raising bottom end achievement is identifying, as soon as possible, those students at risk, that their special needs might be addressed. A consistent sub-narrative has been the idea that students and parents deserve to know how they measure up against expected performance profiles.
The arguments against assessing primary aged students against national standards in this way are the expected ones. First, the premise is challenged. To anybody working in education, the idea that our problem is we don’t know which kids are struggling with basic literacy and numeracy skills, seems slightly bonkers. Primary schools were already awash with assessment information. The next objection is that a further layer of assessment diverts resources from the much more important business of, you know, educating. Another common objection is that the standards, as implemented, have the unfortunate quality of being neither national, nor standards. Descriptors are vague, and interpretations all over the shop. National moderation might fix this, but only by creating an even greater resource drain on a system that would maybe prefer to spend the money on, perhaps, remedial maths and reading programmes.
Next, many worry that by putting public pressure on schools to measure up against these standards, the very strength of our education system, a strength embedded in the new curriculum, of thinking of education in as broad terms as possible, will be undermined. One can always rote learn one’s way through prescribed assessment tasks, but is this what we want our schools to be about? There’s also the hopefully obvious fact that neural development in children is not a clockwork process, kids develop at their own rates, and yet the national standards will tend to label the student who naturally comes to reading a bit later as underachieving, which is nuts. A related point is the crucial role self-assessment and sense of potential play in motivation and learning. The risk is clearly one of the crude results convincing the struggling student that all hope is lost.
And finally, and here I belatedly reach my point, there is the suspicion that the results will not be used to enhance the prospects of learning and engagement, but instead will become a tool for labelling schools as successes and failures. In short, that the end consumers of this information will not be those striving to lift bottom end achievement, but instead will be the educational equivalent of the worried well. In short, the parents of the bulk of our students, who do as well as any students on the globe. These parents, it is feared, will buy into politically motivated scare stories about failing schools, and will seek to use the data to judge the desirability of a school. A very real fear would then be an escalation of flight to schools perceived good, from those considered failures. And this, to be blunt, will be characterised by a movement of white students away from schools with too many brown faces in them. (Not that it was about race, you understand. Oh no, it was purely our concerns about the school’s achievement profile.)
Now, I would argue that the way the first round of data has been published absolutely confirms this fear. Because, if you go on to the Ministry’s website and search for a school’s results, all you are given are the percentages of that school’s students well below, below, at or above the standard (also by sex and ethnicity). And that, when it comes to judging how well a school is advancing its students, is absolutely useless data. Worse than useless, it’s misleading. Consider two cases. A school where all its new entrants are significantly below the standard. But, due to superb staff, they slowly catch up, exactly as we hope might happen. So, five years later, the same students are somewhere near the standard. A remarkable achievement. Should any such school exist, we should make it our business to find out how their miracles are being achieved. Now consider the school that serves the affluent settled suburb, where students arrive with extensive vocabularies, full stomachs, and a good night’s sleep. All start out well above the standard, but due to a complacent and dispirited staff, make only mediocre progress, so that five years later many have slipped back to average.
On the ministry website the second school, the epitome of a bad school, looks pretty good, while the first, the very model of all we aspire to, looks pretty bad. So, even if the standards were reliable measures of achievement (and for now they’re not) the way they are being presented works directly against the stated aims of the reforms. Either this is because the Government is bowing to the demands of its natural constituency, who want only to see their favourite myths of superiority reinforced, or it’s sheer laziness and incompetence. Neither explanation is flattering. I say laziness because, with only a modicum of effort, a quite different performance profile could be complied. Consider results against standards for the school’s entry year, and compare it to results for their leaving year. Calculate the net change percentage (e.g we start off with 45% below the standard, but end up with only 13%) and report that. In time, the more accurate record will be comparing the same cohort ‘s results in later years, but to start with, this isn’t a terrible first estimate. The trouble is, it will show that the very best schools, those having the most profound influence on their students, aren’t necessarily the ones we think they are. And that would never do, would it?