The Education Minister's national standards proposal ignores evidence from similar schemes overseas, says Warwick Elley.
If the Minister of Education needs any help in formulating her New Year's resolutions for 2010, she could well listen to the professionals and agree to a year of pilot studies for her ill-starred proposals on national standards. The way ahead is fraught with difficulties.
Anne Tolley has promised parents "plain-English Plunket-style reports on the progress of their children" in literacy and numeracy. If she believes that is possible, she does not understand the issues.
It is one thing to measure the height and weight of growing babies with accurate instruments, but quite another to ask teachers to judge whether their Year 4 pupils can "read, respond to and think critically about texts", as the draft statements on reading put it.
That judgment will depend on the difficulty level of the texts which the teacher chooses to use. It will depend on the conditions for reading it, the difficulty level of the questions, the format of the questions, the sequencing of the questions and the degree of severity used in judging the child's responses.
All these matters are arbitrary and uncontrollable, and will vary from teacher to teacher. There is much evidence on these issues. That is one reason why pilot testing will be needed.
I was working in England when its controversial national standards regime was being tested, 20 years ago. One example from a small primary school illustrated the problems well. Miss Latham, the principal of Dymchurch Country School, decided to assess her 58 Year 2 children in reading, three times, using three books (from a prescribed list).
She selected passages from each text and prepared questions to test the children's "ability to read and understand" them. Based on the first book, 90 per cent of the children answered the required number of questions correctly, and achieved the standard. On the second book, 72 per cent passed. On the third book only 38 per cent achieved the standard. Which results should Miss Latham report?
The point is that educational measurement is quite different from Plunket-style measurement. Teachers can only sample their pupils' abilities. The particular sample of texts chosen and the questions have a huge influence on whether children do well or badly. Moreover, young children differ in their performance from day to day and from passage to passage.
Yet the minister is apparently leaving it to teachers to select the "sources of evidence" they use to make their assessments. It will be easy for most teachers, with their pupils' interests at heart, to put a positive spin on their performance.
Reading assessment is difficult enough. Measuring progress in children's writing, with graphs of progress, is even harder. Again, there is much research on the problems entailed. The proposed scheme will only tell the minister how difficult it is.
Mrs Tolley has been told repeatedly about the serious flaws in the scheme, about how these schemes have been tried in Britain and the United States without any reduction in the tales of underachievement.
She has been warned about the distortions that occur when young children are exposed to "high-stakes assessments", whether properly standardised or not. She has ignored the logic of the professionals' arguments that the standards, if intelligible at all, will be too low for some and too high for others.
If she were to study the profiles of the 20 per cent she claims are failing to learn, she would find, as we have, that many are Esol (English as a second language) pupils, many have disabilities of one form or another, and many are disturbed children from dysfunctional families. All Western countries with diverse cultures and wide variations in economic status suffer from these problems.
Teachers know who the struggling children are, and they are frequently concentrated in low-decile schools without the benefits of reading recovery or other remedial programmes. Such schools need material support, not more and more assessments.
Before Mrs Tolley sets out to change the culture of our nation's primary schools for the worse, she should reflect on the evidence from abroad, and revise her New Year's resolutions. Her scheme needs to be tested and properly evaluated to reveal its flaws.
* Emeritus professor of education Warwick Elley lives at Rothesay Bay.