Ian Schagen says the national testing approach in schools provides valuable lessons for NZ

The introduction of national testing in England in the early 1990s puts us at a huge advantage in New Zealand.

The pitfalls and dangers of such an approach are now widely recognised. The national standards which New Zealand schools will be using from next year are completely different to the national testing system used in England.

The aims of the two approaches are poles apart.

National standards are driven by a commitment to help students get the reading, writing and mathematics skills they need so they can learn all the subjects in the New Zealand curriculum and gain worthwhile qualifications.

The standards describe what a student should be able to do at each year level. Those students who aren't at the standard are identified and provided with the assistance they need to make progress.

The system in England is based on national tests, increased competition and accountability with the annual publication of school league tables based on percentages of students achieving "expected" levels in these tests.

The political theory was that it would make schools accountable for their students' achievement and would allow parental choice to drive school improvement.

There is wide agreement in New Zealand that such an approach is flawed. League tables based only on student achievement tell virtually nothing about how well schools are doing. The schools that come out top are those with the best intake, not those providing the best education.

Focusing on percentages passing a threshold means schools tend to concentrate on students near the threshold and ignore those well above or below.

And, importantly, the use of a single national test puts pressure on schools to "teach to the test", thus narrowing the curriculum for students, especially in the year of testing. New Zealand has not gone down this track.

Our national standards will provide an external reference framework which has been set up to answer the question: "Where do students need to be at different points in their development for us to be confident that they will benefit from their education?"

My experience of measuring actual student progress shows that it is rarely, if ever, steady and linear, so it is unlikely and not to be expected that any individual will follow the standards through exactly year by year.

National standards are like signposts that teachers, parents and students can use to improve learning.

Teachers will use a range of assessment activities to gather information to make a professional judgment about a student's overall progress and achievement in reading, writing and mathematics in years 1-8.

That's very different to England, where students take a one-off test at years 2 and 6, in English, mathematics and science.

Assessment there is high stakes for schools and centrally controlled.

We can expect teacher professional development in New Zealand to be enhanced through the assessment methods and the moderation processes used in school.

Meeting with colleagues to discuss and agree overall teacher judgments will give teachers confidence that they are on the right track. From this will develop a shared understanding of what quality work looks like and what criteria define it.

National standards are focused on supporting teaching and learning. The goal is to raise progress and achievement for all students in all schools. There is potential for really positive improvements in education outcomes for young New Zealanders.

* Ian Schagen was an educational statistician with England's National Foundation for Educational Research. He is on contract to the NZ Ministry of Education as chief research analyst.