Two major pieces of research on National Standards were released simultaneously in the last week that seriously question the effectiveness and value of the National Standards in Education. Martin Thrupp published the final report of his three year qualitative study involving six schools and Cathy Wylie released the results of a comprehensive survey that included 180 principals, 713 teachers, 277 members of boards of trustees and 684 parents.
I was lucky to attend the launch of Martin Thrupp's report "National Standards and the Damage Done" at the New Zealand Association for Research in Education conference in Dunedin. Martin's research is well regarded internationally because it is the first time that the introduction of a high stakes assessment system has been so comprehensively studied in the school environment.
Through ongoing interviews and classroom observations, six schools were closely studied as they grappled with the untrialled system that was forced upon them. The schools covered a range of deciles and included contributing schools, full primaries and an intermediate, some willingly embraced the Standards initially and some openly opposed them.
Constant pressure and incrementalism over the last four years has meant that all schools have ended up engaging with the standards. There were audible expressions of horror from the around theatre when photographs of classroom wall displays depicted children being ranked according to their attainment in National Standards. This was something that Anne Tolley had embarrassingly suggested should be done during the initial introduction and I never thought any teacher would eventually humiliate children in this way.
Both Cathy and Martin produced some similar results and concerns and I have tried to list a summary of these below:
- Schools that have opposed the Standards and had a history of positive ERO reports have been eventually bullied into reporting on the Standards.
- While there has been some increase in teacher understanding regarding the curriculum levels in numeracy and literacy, the negative impacts have heavily outweighed the positives.
- Constant assessment and data collection has noticeably increased teacher workloads and shifted attention from other important aspects of teaching and learning.
- New Zealand's previously lauded holistic curriculum has been comprehensively narrowed into a two tiered system where there is literacy and numeracy dominating and all other learning areas beneath. Even the teaching of reading, writing and maths has narrowed to fit common tests.
- While they felt there was some value in National Standards, most parents wanted more detailed information about other aspects of their children's progress at school, including socialisation and other learning areas (Science, PE, Art...).
- The politics around National Standards limited ERO's ability to acknowledge flaws in the system. It has been almost impossible for any professional entity to question the policy. While our curriculum was developed through a co-construction process with the profession, there has been no serious attempt to do the same with National Standards.
- While the Government and the Ministry of Education tried to assure professionals that New Zealand's version of high stakes assessment wouldn't suffer the same pitfalls experienced overseas, this has not been the reality.
- The difficulty of getting assessment consistency between teachers and across schools is virtually impossible and the resulting national data will never provide useful information on progress.
- The focus on data and performance in schools has created unfair criticisms of teaching and schools when the biggest change could be achieved by reducing the socio-economic inequalities between schools.
Martin is a serious academic and takes pride in sticking to robust research protocols and using outside moderation to critique his work. However, in speaking publicly about his research, Martin has been subjected to similar abuse from Ministers and right wing bloggers as Mike Joy has experienced for speaking out about environmental degradation.
When there is such strong evidence of systemic failure, the Government is still determined to push on with the Standards. Minister Hekia Parata is also warning that the next international assessments (PISA) will show a drop in achievement from New Zealand. I am predicting that this will mean yet another attack on supposed underperforming teachers and schools, no extra investment in resourcing and useful professional development and no change in policy.