Martin Thrupp: National Standards data fixation barrier to useful change

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Photo / NZ Herald
Photo / NZ Herald

This year the Government has produced more than 100 regional and national infographics related to the National Standards in primary schools for anyone who wants to look at them. The data for individual schools is also online for the second year running. New Zealanders are suddenly swimming in National Standards data.

But has the fixation on National Standards been good for schools and children? This is the main question addressed by the just-released final report of the Research Analysis and Insight into National Standards (RAINS) project, a three-year study in six diverse primary and intermediate schools.

The study shows that the RAINS schools have been converging towards the National Standards agenda over time, whether the schools were early adopters, have come to the Standards over time, or have been forced to engage because of intervention from the Ministry of Education or the Education Review Office. It is not so much that schools are keen on the National Standards but they are making virtue out of necessity.

While National Standards are having some favourable impacts, such gains are overshadowed by the damage being done. There has been increased teacher understanding of curriculum levels, motivation of some teachers and children and some improved targeting of children's learning needs. But there has also been curriculum narrowing and adverse positioning and labelling of children. Too much teacher time is being used up by the National Standards and there are unproductive new tensions amongst school staff.

Evidence that the National Standards are harming the culture of schools needs to be taken seriously because it has surfaced while New Zealand's version of high stakes assessment is still in an embryonic stage. National Standards are not going to avoid problems that have been found internationally, they represent a variation on the theme.

The Government has taken some steps to reduce harm by masking the published data where the effect of publishing is likely to reveal the achievement of individuals or stigmatise schools with very few or no children "at" or "above" such as special schools. Yet what needs to have been taken more seriously is the potential for National Standards to have a detrimental impact on day-to-day processes and relationships in and around schools long before the data gets published, as well as any subsequent effects of publication.

There will only be a shift in teacher preoccupations and use of energies away from the damaging excesses currently emerging when a different way to be a "good" New Zealand teacher becomes sanctioned by policy. It is not going to be enough to promulgate a different story about the existing National Standards.

Based on the study, our recommendations include:

• Abandoning the crude four-point National Standards scale ("above", "at", "below" and "well below"), instead reporting whichever underlying curriculum level a child has reached. This would allow a more constructive focus on progress.

• Allowing teachers to discuss age-related expectations of children and any other matters that parents want to discuss, but only in ways that are mindful of the potential for harm such as lowered expectations.

• Leaving it up to schools how to determine student achievement against curriculum levels while informing their decisions through high quality professional development.

• Abandoning the nationwide collection and public reporting of primary achievement data, instead gathering system-wide information through a national sampling approach.

• Continuing with ERO reviews but with different policy informing review teams' practices.

These proposals do not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Schools already base most of their assessment work around curriculum levels. The aim must be to remove the harmful bits of policy and reach back into the culture of schools to repair the damage being done.

The challenge for parents and the public around the National Standards agenda is the same as across the public sector: to avoid being seduced by the tidy rows of figures in national indicators and to be more searching about what might actually lie beneath them.


Martin Thrupp is Professor of Education at the University of Waikato and leads the RAINS project on National Standards.

- NZ Herald

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