National Standards

Thinking about National Standards in NZ.

So today, I went on to the NZ Ministry of Education website to read all their material on National Standards.

First up. I dislike the name, and not for the obvious reasons that a former Labour member of parliament might dislike the name….NATIONAL standards.

I dislike the notion of a standard in learning. It is too definite, too black and white.

But I did like the description of criterion-referenced assessment, as long as this was only a conversation between the teacher, student and student’s parents. This was because words were used, not a conversion to percentages and numbers. And because it did seem to enable the teacher to gain confidence in knowing the next steps. However, some may not need this and may have a sound professional reason for trying another way forward to tackle punctuation or whatever the problem was.

When I began teaching in the 1970’s, I was not sure what students in the then Form Three should be able to do. Instead the students would write some paragraphs on a topic, and I would work through the areas in which they could improve, because my simple objective was that wherever a student was, they could improve.

The standardisation did not really begin until School Certificate, and if you were a marker there were some wonderful arguments about what marks a piece of writing deserved. That is why I am suspicious of National Standards: I can remember the arguments!

But in simple terms with National Standards this has now all shifted to students from age 5 to 18. And I do not like this. I do not like each child having a number assigned to them against which their personal progress is recorded. This occurs in England. As a teacher I can enter Raise-on-Line and look at the progress of my students  before I even meet them. I can see what standard they can be expected to get by the end of the year. And here is the sting in the tail, as a teacher I can be held accountable if that student does not make the plotted progress.

Don’t misunderstand me. I want all teachers to work with their students on improving their skills. I never ever want to hear a teacher say, as I did hear in NZ and in England, “These students cannot learn because they live in those streets….”. But there are better ways of working with teachers to improve progress for all students than National Standards.

There are two really scary aspects of National Standards.

The first is with narrowing the curriculum. Imagine not reading all of Romeo and Juliet, but just concentrating on the  love sonnet, the balcony scene and say  the final deaths of both Romeo and Juliet. Many teachers will do this and text books will be written by the same examination boards, focussing on say these scenes, speeches. Why? because that is what the examination board will ask questions on ( this will be made quite clear), so why waste precious time really enjoying all of Romeo and Juliet…just study in depth the parts that will be examined, because it is important for your students to get the required grades. And the students will know the vocabulary they should use and the examples given to get these grades. This is machine learning….in fact it is not learning at all.

The second scary aspect is the school league tables. I finally found the New Zealand version as published on Stuff. I compared my two local primary schools and I was so so sad. What is the purpose of doing this? Is it to give parents choices so they choose the school where children are above the national average? This is treating education like a commodity, that is bought and sold. What do those statistics say about bullying in the playground? What do they say about opportunities for leadership/creativity/ exploration by the students? And neither do the ERO reports say much, if anything about those issues either.

So I do not wish for the system and practices that lie around these so-called National Standards.

I do want to have guidelines as to what an average child ( whatever that is) might be able to do, or what we might aim for them to be able to do, aged nine in mathematics.

But I do not want that to become a personal record for each child , or a measuring stick for teacher and school to be judged by.

In England they worried because more and more students began to attain the necessary grades. So now their Minister says that the standards are too easy and they readjust them. It becomes a nonsensical game.

Please, please New Zealand, do not go down this path. Do not have little five year olds sitting tests and crying from fear and confusion as has been reported from California.

PS dear readers, soon I will learn to do links…I know that I am scoring below average in this skill. But to hell with the score. I know that links will show evidence to back up my assertions!!! I do not need a score to tell me this.