Warwick B. Elley: Education system's weak spot

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Warwick Elley. Photo / Richard Robinson
Warwick Elley. Photo / Richard Robinson

Last week's OECD Report which evaluated our education system, deserves more public discussion than it has so far received. The authors of these reports, top experts from other OECD countries, had the benefit of a rich data set, and an independent, comparative perspective. They were ideally placed to assess our strengths and weaknesses, and detect potential threats to future progress. Their insights and recommendations merit close study by all concerned with improving the quality of our schools.

The Report praises New Zealand educators for the generally high standards that are achieved in reading, mathematics and scientific literacy. The international findings show that our 15 year-olds consistently score in the top half dozen OECD countries, even though we spend far less per student than nearly all of them. Our top students are repeatedly up with the best in the world.

Our system was commended too, for avoiding "high-stakes" testing in the primary school years. Like Finland, the OECD's star performer, we have so far kept compulsory assessments and league tables out of the primary classroom.

But this is about to change. Our National Standards policy was identified as one weak spot needing change. It is a potential threat to our high standing. The authors have no doubt taken account of the fact that those countries which have introduced similar system-wide policies, with "league tables", are going backwards.

Last month, President Obama admitted that US mandatory standards-based policy had failed.

And recent Australian OECD data, like those of England, show a major decline in overall achievement. All three countries have had system-wide compulsory assessments and league tables for over a decade. Their big tails of underachievement have not disappeared, and their top students are fading.

Why are so many of our practitioners, school boards and political parties opposed to a plan that is supposed to give clearer information to parents and help the laggards catch up. The OECD Report made five major criticisms:

1. Our teachers are not adequately trained to make the kinds of assessments envisaged in the Government's plan. When we look at the vague statements which purport to specify the expected standards, we wonder how any amount of training would enable them to do so. Most standards are capable of many different interpretations. As the report points out, New Zealand teachers use a huge range of assessment strategies. The zealots who framed our policy were clearly uninformed about the research which shows how much student success depends on which tasks are set, how they are worded, and how they are marked, and many other factors. This is serious.

2. Then the report criticises our lack of "systematic moderating procedures". The teachers' judgments cannot be "nationally consistent" unless they can be checked against those of other schools - which set different tasks and assess them in different ways. This criticism has been levelled often, but, no effective solution is forthcoming. This too, is serious.
3. Thirdly, there is a "lack of articulation" between the National Standards and our popular new National Curriculum. Classroom teachers know full well which will take precedence once those assessments become high-stakes. This too, is serious.

4. Next is the concern about the way that the information from National Standards will be used. The crude results which report the number of students falling above and below arbitrary, nebulous standards cannot reveal how students are progressing. They "provide little insight about the quality of teaching and learning in the school". Furthermore, the threat of media-reported "league tables" ensures that teachers will narrow their focus, distort the curriculum, and concentrate on those students close to the perceived standard. There is much research on this matter - all negative -- from those countries that have been down this path. This too, is serious.

5. Finally, a focus on literacy and numeracy will "marginalise other learning areas". Those familiar with the research know that science and social studies will suffer, music and art will be downgraded, and the many life skills that primary teachers promote will get low priority. This too, is serious.

The Report pointed to the widespread concern about this policy - which was contrived hastily, by politicians, bureaucrats, and a few hand-picked educators, to solve a problem that is largely beyond the control of the schools. Let the government get serious about addressing our child poverty statistics (amongst the worst in OECD) and see the underachievement tail diminish. Children who are under-nourished, sick, neglected, and abused are invariably poor learners.

The OECD authors identified other deficiencies, but the faults listed above need prompt attention. Perhaps our policy makers can see why 86% of principals believe National Standards will not help reduce our tail of underachievement. There may well be 20% of students "left behind", but if there were some magic educational bullet that could improve their lot, they would merely be replaced by another 20 per cent at the low end. There is no critical point in the literacy scales that ensures that students are competent enough to employ.

Our Minister of Education claims to be "working on these problems", but others with better understanding of assessment have tried, without success. It is time to move to Plan B. Make National Standards optional, trust schools to use their own less-damaging approaches to showing progress, re-direct funds to other targeted initiatives, and attack the poverty-related problems that create those barriers to learning.

* Warwick B. Elley is emeritus professor of education, University of Canterbury and recently served as evaluation consultant for the World Bank

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