You would think everyone involved with education would be gladdened by the second year of national standards results for primary and intermediate schools released yesterday. They show a slight improvement in all three essential subjects: reading, writing and mathematics.
About 450,000 pupils at year levels 1-8 were assessed and 77.4 per cent were reading at the expected standard, 73.6 per cent could calculate to the required level and 70 per cent could write at the standard for their year. While Maori and Pasifika children were not matching the overall standards, Pasifika pupils showed the largest improvement of any group, raising their results by 3 per cent in all three subjects.
A distinct set of standards for speaking, reading, writing and calculating in Maori was introduced last year and the first results for the 22,000 pupils assessed show lower levels of achievement than the general level in all subjects except reading.
Education Minister Hekia Parata sounded pleased enough. The results were "a credit to our teaching profession," she said, and would be "extremely powerful for identifying and providing support for all children". This is the first year results have been available for each class level and her main disappointment was that rates of achievement appear to be declining as students get older, especially in mathematics.
You would think everyone in education would find the results useful, particularly as they have not been presented in a way that permits ready comparisons of different schools, which was the concern of many educationists when national standards were first mooted. But two years on, leading figures in the field still seem determined to discredit them.
Waikato University Professor of Education Martin Thrupp, writing in our pages before the results were released, said any claim of improvement or decline would be spurious.
"Schools' approaches to making judgments against the national standards are so idiosyncratic and wide-ranging," he wrote, "that it is impossible to accurately compare achievement between schools, let alone 'apples with apples' comparisons across more than 2000 New Zealand primary and intermediate schools."
Well, it should not be impossible. If education experts are earning their salaries they ought to have devised good, sound techniques for measuring the overall performance of the education system at every level. They should not be resigned to "idiosyncratic" approaches by schools.
The public has grown tired of criticism of the Government's efforts to do what the profession should have done long ago.
Professor Thrupp leads a project called "Rains", an apt acronym perhaps, that stands for research, analysis and insight into national standards. Six schools have been studied and they showed, he says, "extreme variability in processes underlying national standards judgments. For instance, schools are on different trajectories around the national standards related to their diverse contexts and past practices ..."
That is the jargon of minds looking for problems where none need exist.
Teachers and schools will never be perfectly consistent in their testing and marking but with professional guidance they can be consistent enough to provide their pupils and the paymasters with useful measures of the education system's performance. That is what the Government was seeking. Now, with two years of figures to compare, the minister can begin to act on the results.