It is disappointing to see Fairfax has published a new round of National Standards data and advocacy on the Stuff website. Last year I wrote urging Fairfax not to continue with publishing the data but it seems they could not resist.
The Fairfax approach encourages comparison but National Standards are not nationally moderated. They are affected by far too many sources of variation to use for comparing the performance of schools. Children rated ‘at’ at one school will often be rated ‘below’ or ‘above’ at other schools.
The Ministry of Education is aware of this problem so it has been trialling a national online tool to bring more consistency to the National Standards judgments – the Progress and Consistency Tool (PaCT).
But PaCT is only due to be introduced next year. So why would Fairfax publish the existing flawed data for all schools in a way that encourages comparison? The rows of figures may be tidy but the emperor has no clothes.
My concern about PaCT is that as it attempts to solve the moderation issue it will bring its own problems in schools and classrooms. It will be a bit like how stoats and ferrets were introduced into New Zealand to control the rabbit population.
Back to National Standards, there are many other good reasons for not giving the results any publicity. The language of the National Standards, especially the ‘below’ and ‘well below’ labels, is crude and stigmatising rather than developmental.
The National Standards approach is not a ‘value-added’ one and it tends to fail children with disadvantages. These include children with various special needs, children with English as a second language, and children from deprived backgrounds.
There are also some toxic effects of the National Standards on the culture of primary schools including curriculum narrowing and a wasteful use of precious teacher time. Ironically, it is often where teachers and schools are doing their best to take the National Standards seriously that they will be most harmful.
All in all the National Standards policy has little to recommend it. There are better alternatives to getting national information about student achievement such as an approach that samples across schools. But at the moment the public is being encouraged by Fairfax to take the National Standards seriously.
Of course some will insist that ‘at the end of the day’ we must have standards in schools. My response is that in education the cry of ‘standards’ is the last refuge of the scoundrel. I want standards, you want standards, the monkeys in the zoo surely want standards!
The point is that the Key Government’s National Standards are not just standards, they are a particular and idiosyncratic assessment system. They are also complete nonsense, at least for the comparative purposes that Fairfax is promoting.
Martin Thrupp is Professor of Education at the University of Waikato [email protected]