By: Simon Collins

Video: The Herald visits Sylvia Park School and talks with Principal Barbara Ala’alatoa, as well as Massey Primary School principal Bruce Barnes, on how the schoold have reacted to the introduction of the new standards. / NZ Herald video by Jason Oxenham and Nick Reed

Every child at Sylvia Park School only has to look up at the classroom wall to know exactly what level they’re at in reading, writing and maths.

Brightly coloured cards bearing each child’s name have been stuck next to that child’s level on the curriculum.



When they move up a level, their card is moved up too.

“The kids really celebrate those who make progress, who are often the ones that are struggling,” says Year 5 teacher Tess Leona.

“It’s not about the standard, it’s about your journey – have you made enough of a journey this year, have you done a year’s worth of learning?”

Sylvia Park, whose principal Barbara Ala’alatoa chairs the Education Council of NZ, has wholeheartedly embraced the new National Standards, which set out the levels that all children should reach in reading, writing and maths in each of their first eight years of school.

The standards were the centrepiece of the National Party’s education policy before it came to power in 2008.

They are now the defining educational issue between National and its main opponents in next month’s election. Labour, the Greens and NZ First would all scrap the standards.

A new book by Waikato University’s Professor Martin Thrupp effectively warns other countries against the policy in its title, The Search for Better Educational Standards: A Cautionary Tale. Thrupp is horrified by those cards on the wall at Sylvia Park.

“I don’t think it’s particularly helpful to have that kind of positioning for students who find themselves in the low group year after year,” he says.

People on both sides of the argument agree on the main effects of the standards: a tighter focus on the “three R’s”, targeting students who are falling behind, more assessment, and clearer reporting to parents and taxpayers.

But there is still a big question mark over the ultimate issue: have the standards actually improved children’s learning?

How we got here

Before 2008, schools did not have to report any data on their students’ learning to the Ministry of Education until the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA), which most students hit in their 11th year of schooling.

“You didn’t have any report that you sent to the ministry,” says Bruce Barnes, principal of Massey Primary School in West Auckland. “There was no overall New Zealand-wide picture.”

More importantly for politicians, some parents felt school reports were so vague that they were meaningless.

The National Government began piloting new national tests for primary schools just before it lost power in 1999, and by 2005 its policy had evolved into national standards.

When the party won again in 2008 it rushed national standards into law before Christmas. Since then primary schools have been required to set targets in their annual charters for students achieving national standards in reading, writing and maths, and to report to the ministry on any variance between their targets and outcomes.

Focus on 3 R’s

The standards focus deliberately on the three R’s: reading, writing and arithmetic (maths).

Many teachers resent that. A 2016 survey by the NZ Council of Educational Research (NZCER) found that 69 per cent of primary and intermediate teachers agreed national standards “have narrowed the curriculum I teach”.

Thrupp’s in-depth study of national standards in six schools found that schools in poorer areas felt more forced to narrow their focus to lift their children up to national standards, whereas most children in richer areas were already achieving the standards so they could afford to keep spending time on other subjects.

A low-decile intermediate changed its timetable to give all students two hours of literacy and numeracy from 9am to 11am each day.

“It meant children could no longer be with specialist arts or technology teachers or doing physical education or other activities in the first block of each day,” Thrupp writes.

Barnes says his Decile 3 Massey Primary students also do maths and literacy in the mornings, but he is determined to retain other subjects too.

“We were forced to spend more time on literacy and numeracy,” he says.

“We’ve had to take a step back and say this is not actually right. There was a massive emphasis on that [literacy and numeracy] with our professional development, but we still have to cover the other learning areas. We cannot lose those.”

In fact he believes the arts are a key to fostering the kind of creative “divergent thinking” we need to do well in the post-industrial era.

At Sylvia Park, Ala’alatoa says literacy and numeracy topics are built around “inquiries” which the whole school does for a term.

Last year they built an outdoor classroom and a greenhouse made of recycled plastic bottles to answer the inquiry question: “How can we ensure that we don’t need Mars as our ‘Plan B’ planet?”

This term they are asking questions around the election: “What makes a good leader and how do I choose one?”

“We’ll have 100 per cent of parents voting,” Ala’alatoa says. “I do take exception to people saying we are narrowing the curriculum because of national standards.”

Targeting students

Schools have to report to the ministry on how many students are “at, above, below or well below national standards, including by Maori, Pasifika, European/Pakeha, Asian, gender, and by year level”.

Broadly, “above” means students are a year or more ahead of the standard, “below” means they are about a year behind, and “well below” means they are more than a year behind.

NZCER found that 63 per cent of teachers agree the standards have made them “focus particularly on students who are achieving ‘below’ or ‘well below'”.

At Sylvia Park, each teacher targets six to eight children and works with their families.

“We’ve always had target kids. What is new is the notion of whanau voice,” says Ala’alatoa.

At Massey Primary, this year’s plan identifies three groups with too many students below standards: last year’s Year 4 students (this year’s Year 5) in writing; this year’s Year 5 and Year 8 in maths; and Maori and Pasifika students across the school in reading.

The school is targeting extra professional development for teachers of those groups, and teachers are each targeting extra help for three or four children.

However Thrupp’s study found some concern at “most effort being put into those children who were just ‘below’ and who could be relatively easily shifted to ‘at’ [standard]” – leaving less time both for those with special needs who had no hope of ever reaching standard, and for extending those at or above the standard to reach their full potential.

He says the Education Review Office now focuses on achievement of “priority learners”, which it defines as “Maori, Pacific, special needs, and students from low income families, who are not achieving at or above national standards”.

“I don’t subscribe to the view that if you get priority learners right everything else will be okay,” Thrupp says. “There are other groups that you can see are not being well catered for.”

More assessment

Teachers have to make “overall teacher judgments” about where all students sit in relation to the three national standards for their year.

Ala’alatoa says every teacher at Sylvia Park is expected to record how much progress every student makes in every lesson.

“Prior to national standards, eliciting the contribution that kids make in a high-quality teaching situation, and capturing it, is something that we haven’t done with the sort of precision that we do now,” she says.

Thrupp says judging where each student is at has become “an enormous thing” for some teachers.

“If you emphasise assessment, teachers will spend more time on it,” he says. “I don’t think you want to be spending so much time on assessment at the expense of teaching and learning.”

But Mark Bracey, a new-entrant teacher at Waterlea School in Mangere Bridge who blogs at Ease Education, says teaching can still be driven by each child’s interests and achieving the standards will be “the byproduct of the great learning that is going on”.

“The key to that is getting them really engaged, learning about what they want to learn about,” he says.

“You don’t need to fill in this worksheet, that’s just filler time. It’s about having a good relationship with the child so they will do anything for you, they want to show you how clever they are.”

Reporting to parents

Massey Primary’s reports to parents state explicitly whether their child is above, at, below or well below each standard.

“It’s a compliance issue,” Barnes says. “I don’t think it’s very helpful for a child’s efficacy, or even for a parent’s understanding.”

Sylvia Park uses a chart to show parents where their child sits on the learning steps expected in each year, but softens the language in its written reports by describing the child as “exceeding”, “meeting” or “working towards” the standards.

Both schools say their parent-teacher meetings are led by the children, who don’t refer to national standards as such but know the stage they are working at and the next stage they are aiming for. That is why both schools show where each child is up to on those wall charts.

“The child is able to say, ‘This is where I am, this is where I’m going to next, and this is where I want to get to,” Barnes says. “So they don’t feel, ‘I’m captured there and I’m going to stay there.'”

Reporting to taxpayers

The Education Ministry now receives, and publishes, detailed data on how every school is doing on national standards in every year level and by gender and ethnicity.

The data shows, for example, that 72 per cent of Pasifika students at Sylvia Park School were at or above national standards for reading in 2015, compared with 66 per cent of Pasifika students nationally and 52 per cent of Pasifika students at Massey Primary. (Data for 2016 are due this month).

On the other hand, only 58 per cent of Sylvia Park’s Maori students were at or above the maths standards, compared with 65 per cent of Maori students nationally and 64 per cent of Maori students at Massey Primary.

In theory, the ministry can now use such data to keep tabs on whether taxpayers are getting a good return from the $11 billion annual education budget.

However in practice such use of the data is limited, for two reasons.

First, the data is unreliable. An official evaluation of the first five years of the standards found, for example, that the rates of Years 7 and 8 students reported as at or above standards were between 6 and 13 per cent higher in full primary schools than in intermediate schools.

“However this is highly unlikely, especially given that there is no substantial difference between the decile distributions of the full primary and intermediate schools in the sample, and that other large-scale studies show no difference in achievement by school type,” the evaluation says.

It also notes huge variations in how students were rated from one year to the next, and concludes: “Considered together, this body of evidence strongly suggests that Overall Teacher Judgments lack dependability.”

Only 12 per cent of principals and 11 per cent of teachers agreed in the NZCER survey that “national standards data from all the local schools provide a reliable local picture of student performance”.

And second, probably because the data is so unreliable, the ministry does not appear to be doing anything with it.

Barnes says the Education Review Office examined Massey’s data when it visited last year. But asked about feedback from the ministry, he says: “I don’t hear from them.”

Has learning improved?

The key outstanding question is: have national standards actually lifted learning, especially for the groups that have fallen behind for decades?

For what it’s worth, the national data shows virtually no change in the proportions of students at or above national standards so far – flat at 78 per cent in reading, 75 per cent in maths and 71 per cent in writing in each of the past three years for which data has been published.

Surprisingly, all the emphasis on targeting Maori and Pasifika students seems to have have had little effect so far. The gap between European and Pasifika students has narrowed very slightly from 19 to 20 percentage points across reading, writing and maths in 2013 to gaps of 17 to 18 per cent in 2015.

The gap between Europeans and Maori has stuck at 15 to 16 per cent in every subject in every year.

There are two other possible indicators of student learning, but they are not much more encouraging.

First, Otago University’s National Monitoring Study of Student Achievement surveys a sample of students in Years 4 and 8 in different subjects every year. They have recently changed their methodology so we can’t compare their latest reports with earlier ones, but they have surveyed one of the national standards subjects since the standards were adopted – reading, in 2014.

This shows the same huge ethnic gaps as the national standards data, but it does show schools closing the gaps slightly between Years 4 and 8: from 1.5 years’ worth of learning to 1.4 years between Europeans and Maori, from 1.8 years to 1.6 years between Europeans and Pasifika, and from 2.2 years to 1.9 years between high and low decile schools.

Second, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) surveyed NZ students in maths in Years 5 and 9 in 2014, and can be compared with previous surveys from 1995 to 2011.

Although it described the changes as statistically insignificant, it found a downward trend over the previous few surveys was reversed in 2014, with average scores up from 486 to 491 in Year 5 and from 488 to 493 in Year 9 against global averages of 500.

This is the best available evidence that national standards may have improved student learning.

However TIMSS provides no evidence that the standards are helping more disadvantaged students. In fact Maori, Pasifika and low-decile students all fell even further behind European and high-decile students between 2011 and 2014.

The future

The Government has developed a Progress and Consistency Tool which should help schools to make more consistent judgments, making the national standards data more reliable. Sylvia Park and Massey are both using the tool for the first time this year.

National’s Education Minister Nikki Kaye says the new Communities of Learning will help local schools work together to lift groups that are falling behind the standards, and the new risk-based funding system will raise funding for schools with the most at-risk students.

“The answer is to continue to close that gap, particularly for our Maori and Pacific students, and to continue to develop the capacity of teachers so that every school is considered by parents as a good school,” she says.

But Labour’s shadow education minister Chris Hipkins would scrap national standards and encourage teachers to value the whole curriculum, which sets looser levels for students to reach every two years across all subjects, not just English and maths.

“Parents wanting to know where their kids are at in a competitive model is not helpful,” he says.

“They should look at what progress their child is making. Some kids naturally take to numbers, some naturally take to arts, some naturally take to words. They are going to develop at different rates.

“So the question is what level of progress are they making, rather than do they all conform to being at the same place at the same time.”

Source: NZ Herald

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