The national education standards do not tell the truth, says Perry Rush.

Upset at the furore over national standards, Education Minister Anne Tolley has challenged teachers to get their facts straight. So here are the facts. National standards do not tell the truth about student achievement.

Comparing previously held achievement expectations for my decile 10 primary school children with the new standards hints at serious flaws. At first it appears my high local expectations need not be so exacting as the standards for both reading and writing are lower than those we currently hold. The standards mark my average readers and writers to be achieving above expectations when, given the high levels of early literacy in our community, this achievement should be considered average.

Therein lies the problem. By dint of their nature, standards set the same course for everyone. That they try to be a "one size fits all" renders them worthless. In our school they are impotent and provide impoverished information to parents.

Worse is to come. National standards assessments are arrived at from a variety of sources. The two main sources of information are test data and levelling of work samples. Levelling requires teacher judgment for each child to identify where the child is assessed as achieving. This process will need to involve moderation of children's work for teachers to develop a shared understanding of what constitutes normal achievement for the standard measured. Even within the same school this process will be subject to subjectivity and bias. This subjectivity will only be magnified between schools.

A significant threat to the accuracy of the standards comes from the tension between the use of testing as a diagnostic tool (to aid teaching) and testing as a summative tool (to aid reporting). Schools test pupils at different times of the year: either the start of the year if the school wishes to use the data to set learning goals for children or at the end of year if the information is needed to sum up attainment. National standards make no claim about when schools should be engaging in this testing. The results of these tests could be remarkably different between schools depending on when the test is held. This is of particular concern in the primary school where children can make remarkable gains in learning over the course of months.

Standards data will be similarly affected by the weighting given to test data as compared with moderated data. There are no national expectations for this weighting: it will be decided differently in different schools. As a result the overall teacher judgment generated within schools will at best be a broad-brush stab at what children are achieving and across schools, akin to a blind stab.

The rationale being touted for the standards is not factual. There is no pressing achievement crisis. It suits the government's agenda to scaremonger.

The tail of underachievement is not 20 per cent but about 4 per cent. This is the gap between normal distribution of achievement and that identified by our national indices of student achievement. Normal achievement will always identify a group underachieving. In every education system in the world this sort of underachievement exists.

In comparative terms a difference of 4 per cent to the underachievement rates of top performing OECD countries hardly constitutes an achievement crisis of epic proportions. Focus should be given to improvement but it does not warrant a sector-wide intervention such as national standards.

The Minister claims standards are needed to tell her how students are achieving at any given school. But Education Review Office reports comprehensively detail each school and their educational performance including student achievement data in literacy and numeracy against national norms. Why does Mrs Tolley need a process that subverts the very office designed to measure and test the quality of school performance?

The reason is obvious. The Government is committed to introducing a competitive marketplace in education. Pitting school against school is the plan the Government holds to improve student achievement. But the paucity of rigour in student achievement data generated by the standards will render schools publicly accountable for data that is simply false.

The Minister of Education has labelled serious concerns raised by parents and teachers about the standards as "rubbish". But the sector has asked a reasonable question that deserves an answer: "Show us the evidence".

If Mrs Tolley wants to improve student achievement, she will need to provide the evidence or rethink her national standards.

* Perry Rush is principal of Island Bay School in Wellington.