From Friday, parents of primary school pupils can visit a government website to see how their school is faring in meeting national standards for reading, writing and mathematics. They will not see their school ranked against others in the much-feared 'league tables'. What they will see for their school will have been provided by the school itself, reflecting whatever approach it has taken to collating and reporting pupil performance in those subjects.
Most parents have scrutinised their child's individual performance through personal report cards. Now they will see the school's assessment of itself. It is generally agreed the information to be published on the government website cannot be used to compare schools because officials have failed to develop consistent assessment and reporting. Parents are promised some consistency of formatting but schools have ranked children by different means and initially been able to supply results in text, tabular or graphic forms.
A vocal lobby argues none of this information should be made available by the state. It is too early in the life of national standards, results are inconsistently judged at a school level, insufficiently moderated at a national level and devoid of numerous explanations for the higher or lower performances of schools. Further, schools should not have to explain all these deficiencies to their parent bodies once their interest is pricked by news reports.
The criticisms of inconsistent judgment and moderation are valid. The Government met a parent demand for yardsticks to measure children's learning but then failed to ensure schools applied those yardsticks the same way and with equal rigour. National standards are highly politicised; those who opposed their introduction oppose their school-by-school publication.
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There is much intolerance of any use of this "ropey" information. A high priesthood of data analysis bemoans news media interest, however hedged with caveats, as betraying the apple in favour of the orange. Yet the combined "wisdom of the crowd" of thousands of schools and teachers, warts and all, does suggest, for example, fewer children meet standards in writing nationally than reading or mathematics.
The National-led Government campaigned to introduce national standards and is publishing data raw because it can, bloody-minded and unbothered by complaints of premature education.
For parents, the solution is to view a school's figures for what they are: early snapshots from an imperfect system interpreted by that particular school. All schools should be ready by Friday to brief parents on what influenced their results, such as numbers of students with English as a second language or with special needs, and to explain their methodology. Talking to parents has to be good.
Beyond that, the Government must set consistent requirements for measuring, reporting and moderation and achieve a better report card for next year.