According to Waikato University education professor Martin Thrupp, schools will use tricks to portray themselves in the best possible light in National Standards results that will be published next month. He is probably right. The opportunity for varnishing has been apparent since the Government decided late in the piece to allow schools to set their own goals and measure their pupils against them. That was a major mistake which has resulted in information from primary and intermediate schools that the Education Minister describes as "variable" and the Prime Minister as "ropey". It is not, however, as Professor Thrupp believes, a reason to withhold the data.
Most parents want their children in schools where they have the best chance of achieving well. Whatever its flaws, the information to be provided on the Government's Education Counts website will be keenly read and of some use. The site will not rank schools in league-table fashion, but will show achievement data in regions and how individual schools are performing against National Standards in reading, writing and mathematics in each region and nationally.
Aside from the opportunity to paint matters as favourably as possible, other things will probably dilute the value of this information. Schools can, for example, show how well their pupils are achieving against National Standards by using tables, graphs and text. Some still resistant to the Government's policy could undermine its efforts by publishing a mass of statistics that are incomprehensible to most parents. Indeed, in some cases, Education Review Office reports for individual schools, which are available on the same website, may, for the time being, continue to provide the most useful information for parents.
A disclaimer on the Education Counts website will concede the shortcomings in the National Standards information by noting that the data will be variable for the next few years. That will disappoint the many people who want clear, specific and useful information from their children's schools. It is important, therefore, that the Education Ministry's work to deliver this in a standard format next year bears fruit. Equally, the quality of the National Standards data must improve year on year, as outlined in a Government five-year plan. This promises "clear annual outcomes" for parents and pupils and a "consistent reporting format, by whole school and by year level".
That process will, of course, clear the way for school league tables. Given the discrepancies in format, the Government is probably being fair in forbidding the Education Ministry to turn this year's information into tables, which would make it easy to compare the performances of local schools. Clearly, however, it is not opposed to this in principle. Nor, undoubtedly, are parents who want to ensure their children are in the best-possible learning environment. And, contrary to what the teacher union suggests, they are quite capable of taking decile rankings into account when they make their judgments. In effect, they already do this at the secondary school level through their assessment of NCEA results.
John Key has described the placing of data online next month as a "good compromise". It is hardly that. Rather, it is just another plain old compromise for a Government policy that enjoys popular support and should have been pursued more assertively. National Standards have been used in schools since 2010. Parents had every right to expect viable and valuable information would be presented to them this year. Their counterparts in Australia, Britain and the United States receive this as a matter of course thanks to nationwide testing. There is no reason for parents here to be denied it.