When National Standards were first introduced in 2010, they were described as a way to set clear expectations about student achievement in Years 1 to 8. At that time, the National Government argued that National Standards were needed to help improve overall student achievement and reduce disparities across groups, to reduce the variability in assessment methods across schools and to improve the information provided to parents.

Given the Labour Government’s plans to scrap them, it is timely to consider the extent to which National Standards have met these goals. To date, much of the debate (both for and against) has been politically and ideologically motivated rather than based in evidence.

However, our research into the reliability and impact of National Standards, drawing on results from more than 15,000 primary school students, demonstrates that the performance of National Standards in achieving the goals outlined above would, at best, be described as ‘below’ the expected standard.

There is no evidence that achievement has improved over the 7 years National Standards have been in place – standardised achievement results (which are specifically designed to be reliable measures) have remained largely static, despite the apparent gain in National Standards results. There is also clear evidence that the “standard” being applied differs markedly across context, with students in the Wellington region needing to achieve significantly higher results to be considered “at standard” than those in the Auckland region.

In terms of reducing the disparities, the results are even more concerning – our research demonstrates that certain groups of learners have consistently received significantly lower National Standards results than they deserve.

For example, on average, boys need to achieve higher results than girls in reading and writing in order to be considered ‘at standard’ – but not in maths.

For students who identify as Maori or Pacific, this effect applies across all three subjects.

In one sense, this is good news. The results indicate that reported achievement gaps are smaller than previously thought, but there is no evidence that disparities have reduced over time.

In fact, given the extensive research demonstrating the importance of high expectations for student success, the fact that priority learners have consistently received lower National Standards results than they deserve is likely to have had the opposite effect – lowered expectations among students and their families, as well as their subsequent teachers who receive the National Standards result from the previous year.

It could be argued that despite these flaws, the information provided to parents is useful, and that the removal would be at odds with parents’ wishes. Yet recent research conducted by the New Zealand Council for Educational Research reports that parents’ opinions are mixed, with only 51 per cent of parents agreeing that National Standards provide valuable information about their child’s learning. This isn’t surprising – being told that your child’s achievement is “well below standard” provides no information at all about how you can support your child’s learning.

Despite these failings, the National Government took some important steps toward fixing these issues. A fundamental flaw in National Standards is the focus on a “snapshot” result, rather than progress.

The Learning Progression Framework is an online tool that represents a promising shift toward a focus on progress. While this tool is primarily intended to support teachers and schools, the principle could be extended to ensure that parents have clear information about the specific areas in which their child needs support or extension. Considerable work has also gone into the development of the Progress and Consistency Tool (PaCT). This tool has significant potential to improve the accuracy and fairness of student results so it is reassuring to see that Minister Hipkins has proposed to retain this rather than scrapping it due to differences in ideology.

For more information, see here.

Dr Kane Meissel is a lecturer in Educational Psychology in the School of Learning, Development and Professional Practice at the University of Auckland. His research focuses on the use of advanced quantitative methodologies to identify and reduce educational disparities as well as promote equity and social justice for traditionally marginalised learners.

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