Patch up the information holes   22-03-10

Annette Pereira | 22 March 2010

Published in the March 2010 edition of Flair Magazine

When school started back this year, students found themselves the oblivious subjects of a major stoush. The topic was national standards with Anne Tolley and John Key in one corner defending their new policy against the likes of the New Zealand Principal's Federation and the primary schools union in the other corner.

National education standards for primary and intermediate schools set a yardstick that all state schools will follow as they monitor and report their students' literacy and numeracy levels. Previously, access to information like this has been patchy. Some teachers and parents have a very good idea where their children are at, but a large proportion don't. According to the Education Review Office (ERO), "only about a quarter of school leaders set expectations that strongly promoted high levels of reading and writing achievement for children in their first two years. Furthermore, in nearly two-thirds of schools, leaders used limited or poor processes to monitor the progress and achievement of these young children." Monitoring student progress is one discrete area of schools' work that can be clearly advanced, with the potential to make a significant improvement in the quality of New Zealand's education.

The vast majority of parents want to give their children the support and help they need to do the best they can. But this is very difficult to do if they don't even know how their child is going. Most people know that babies should learn to walk at somewhere around one year of age, but fewer of us know what length of book a ten-year-old should be able to read, or how well an eight-year-old should be able to spell. Teachers may have a good indication of where a child's learning should be, but when they are managing a large class of students if a child does not "act out" or ask for help, it can be difficult to recognise when they are struggling. By introducing standards, and testing children against those standards, the hope is that parents and teachers will have that big gap— information— filled. If a child is falling behind, something can then be done to remedy the situation.

Meanwhile, opponents of the Standards are saying that the information they provide won't paint a true picture. They argue that the standards put a crude and artificial bar somewhere and say "hit this." Education then becomes reduced to a simplistic measure against a cheap set of criteria. The other big fear is that the media will make "league tables" which would pit school against school by ranking them based on how many students reach the standards. There is some truth in both those concerns. Raw assessment data will always be limited and no one can completely control how the information is used.

Yet the way around these problems is not to get rid of standards simply because they are imperfect. The challenge instead is to make sure the information provided is the best it can be. One way to do that would be to incorporate "value-added indicators" to show the difference teachers and schools are making to a child's learning, against the standards. These could show the long-term developments that are taking place, making the data fairer and more illustrative.

Standards won't measure many of the intrinsically valuable aspects of education. They can't measure a child's curiosity, their joy for learning or the ways that they are learning to handle conflict and to interact with their peers. But they do provide a basic level of information about some of the key building blocks of education; much that follows rests on these early skills. The tests may be crude at times, but with ERO reporting that eight percent of students perform at the lowest literacy levels, this information is vital in helping us catch the students who may otherwise fall through the cracks.