Children's reports unfathomable

By Annemarie Quill

MY 9-year-old daughter bought a beautiful picture home from school last month.

In bright primary colours - with a bit of green thrown in, offset against thick black lines and curves, it was a work of art to rival Mondrian.

Like a Mondrian painting, it eluded immediate meaning. I satisfied her expectant look with, "Wow, you are amazing".

That night, even after staring at it for several hours, I could not interpret the image. I desperately needed to know because my child's "brighter future" hinged on this piece of paper.

It should have been "clear", "straightforward", in "plain language". This is no work of art she created, but her school report - her national standards data - the system introduced in 2010 to describe what students should be able to do in reading, writing and mathematics as they progress through levels 1 to 8, the primary and intermediate years.

In 2010 when National Standards were implemented, a glossy brochure proclaimed the reports would be easy for parents to digest. Such was this emphasis on clarity to parents it verged on the patronising.

I remember thinking the Government must not have much faith in New Zealand's so called world-class education system - in their assumption that we parents are such twits we cannot grasp something so basic as our child's report.

Dumb we are. Consulting with other parents at schools across the Bay, all admitted that they could not understand the reports. One said you needed a PhD in statistics to understand them.

Perhaps it's not a bad thing they are unfathomable. Yesterday Bay Principals warned parents about the accuracy of schools' reporting on national standards, following an independent report that says teachers' use of the standards last year lacked dependability, ranking children's reading, writing and maths correctly only about 60 per cent of the time.

The report, commissioned by the Ministry of Education, concluded reported improvements in student achievements must be treated with caution.

This is a blow to Minister Hekia Parata, who needs to parade good results to overcome noise from teachers who criticise national standards, labelling them as one Bay principal did yesterday, as "a massive failure".

It will be claimed as a victory for the powerful New Zealand Educational Institute union, which strongly opposes the standards, saying the unmoderated data contribute to a false impression that student achievement data are a fair measure of a school.

This on-going battle between the Ministry of Education and the teachers has no winners. Least of all the children, 20 per cent of whom leave school without adequate literacy and numeracy skills.

The teachers' union may not accept it, but our education system is not world class. Former Secretary for Education Lesley Longstone said so in 2012.

In July this year, one of the world's most influential education experts Andreas Schleicher warned New Zealand's performance in education over the past 10 years has now plateaued internationally and is now "treading water". Students are poised to lose out in the global race for the best jobs unless change - like National Standards - is embraced, said Schleicher.

Despite national standards' poor performance so far, parents I know do still want a clear reporting system.

NZEI national president Judith Nowotarski said in yesterday's Bay of Plenty Times: "There was the fallacy that parents needed to know where their kids were but parents have always known where their kids were at."

What she is basing this mad statement on I do not know. Of course parents want to understand how their child is doing, and compare that with peers in class, in school and nationally.

We have the right to know this as parents - and taxpayers.

The Government promised parents a yardstick to measure our children's learning and so far have not been able to deliver.

This is not a reason to scrap the system. The problem with national standards is not their inherent philosophy but their implementation. The ministry did not insist upon uniform assessment and reporting across schools.

They must solve this issue by setting consistent methods in the tests and reporting.

It is not just about satisfying the demands of voting parents. Education contributes to New Zealand's productivity and socio-cultural wellbeing. It encourages children to reach their potential.

Ensuring every child gets the best education is the most crucial thing our Government can do to raise living standards and create a productive economy.

How hard can it be to introduce a standard method of testing across all schools nationally? What are schools afraid of?

They do not shy from rankings when children are hauled out barefoot in winter for the most barbaric of sports - cross country. Children are placed according to their finishing position. They can handle it.

As long as you tell us simply enough, we parents can handle it too.Regular columnist Garth George is away this week.

- Bay of Plenty Times

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