When National Standards in Education were first implemented four of our more prominent education academics wrote an open letter to the then Education Minister, Anne Tolley, opposing them. In that letter Professors Thrupp, Hattie, Crooks and Flockton stated:
"...in our view the flaws in the new system are so serious that full implementation of the intended National Standards system over the next three years is unlikely to be successful. It will not achieve intended goals and is likely to lead to dangerous side effects."The letter was ignored and three years later the same flawed Standards are going to be used to inform a league table to rank schools across the country. The Prime Minister himself has stated that the standards are "ropey" and yet he is supporting the use of them to compare the performance of schools.
Such is the concern regarding the damage that will be done by using such flawed, unmoderated data to inform league tables that 100 education academics from across the country have signed a joint letter to the current Education Minister, Hekia Parata:
"We are a group of New Zealand academics teaching and researching in universities. As a group we are very concerned about the proposed publication of ‘league tables’ of primary school performance based on National Standards, whether compiled by media organisations or by Government. We believe that National Standards achievement data and the available school and student level contextualising data are so clearly unsuitable for the purpose of comparing school performance that to purport to do so would be dishonest and irresponsible. We also believe, based on the experience of other countries, that the publication of league tables will be extremely damaging for New Zealand primary education. As academics we will condemn and disregard any published league table of primary school performance and we urge the New Zealand public to do likewise."
Hekia Parata refers to teaching as a profession and yet the way the Government has managed education and engaged with teachers and academics, it is clear that their regard for the status of the teaching profession is minimal. Professions are defined by an extensive body of specialised knowledge and those who work as professionals require years of study, training and assessment before they can be registered to practice (teaching generally requires four years of study and two years of advice and guidance before registration). Professionals have ethical standards and codes of conduct that inform and direct the way they work and manage their relationships with their clients, patients or students. Professions need to be autonomous and self regulating, not for their own purposes but to provide those whom they serve with the confidence that the professional's prime responsibility is working in their best interests without political or outside influence.
This Government has decided that their political agenda for education trumps the huge body of research and knowledge within the education profession that, up until now, had informed curriculum, assessment and good teaching practice. The government has determined that numeracy and literacy should be the main focus of primary education and has cut resourcing and support to all other curriculum areas like science and technology. This government has decided that comparing schools according to unmoderated assessments of literacy and numeracy achievement and then ranking them on a league table will provide useful information to parents and provide an incentive to schools to lift their standards.
In Prof Martin Thrupp's interview on National Radio this morning, he listed a number of very real concerns regarding the damage that will be done to individual schools and the quality of education delivery to children if the league tables are introduced. He described how measuring children's height and weight is easily and accurately quantified but comparing the performance of schools is virtually impossible due to the huge range of variables involved and the breadth of factors that make a successful school. Prof Thrupp suggested that ERO reports, talking to other parents and actually visiting the school provides richer and more useful information than a league table ever would.
If league tables were established it is likely that parents will be influenced by them and schools that are unfairly ranked near the bottom of the table will suffer and will probably lose the support and confidence of their community. Due to the "high stakes" nature of the Standards, schools will focus overly heavily on getting "good" results and shift their main support to those students who are more likely to boost their achievement numbers. Children who are very able students and those who have learning difficulties will not receive the same level of attention. No longer will assessments be used only to help diagnose the needs of students and report to parents but they will be skewed to ensure that the teacher and the school is seen to be doing well according to limited criteria.
There is also the huge issue of privacy of information. Considering half of all primary schools have rolls of less than 150 students, it will be quite possible to match published results in small communities with individual children. The ethical concerns regarding this are considerable and many schools have refused to pass on their assessment data for this very reason. In extreme cases I can imagine the shame or pressure applied to families whose child's achievement results may be instrumental in pulling down the ranking of a small school. Poor results in one year group in a small school may also be misconstrued as poor school performance and we already have an instance where there has been heavy handed action taken against a school based on limited information.
I know a parent who has a child with autism and she has expressed her concerns about the limited information that National Standards would provide in helping her choose the best school for her child. The best school for her would be one that is very inclusive and accommodating of children with high needs and teaches in a holistic way that is likely to engage the interests of her son. No child is the same and all children need to be in a learning environment that celebrates their unique and individual talents and meets their learning needs in creative and engaging ways. Even if National Standards were properly moderated and did provide an accurate assessment of achievement in literacy and numeracy, the league tables would still only provide information on a very small part of what makes a successful school.
National Standards are seriously flawed, their inconsistent unmoderated nature means there will be no value in their collective data and for the Government to endorse a league table based on them would be unethical and dishonest. Judging by the government's performance generally, perhaps honesty and ethics are not regarded as criteria important enough to reverse their decision.