As I opened my son’s mid-year school report, I found myself scanning for the reassuring words ‘At’ or ‘Above’. But of course they weren’t there – after all, this was his first post-National Standards school report.

One of Chris Hipkins’ first tasks as Education Minister was to dismantle the primary school assessment system introduced by the National Government in 2009. National Standards measured whether students were ‘above’, ‘at’ or ‘below’ the expected level for reading, writing and maths.

“They’re not national and they’re not standard,” Hipkins said, before Labour was elected and he became Education Minister.

“National Standards don’t measure progress; they fail to recognise that different kids learn differently and at different rates.”

Hipkins also took exception to the way the Standards narrowed the curriculum to reading, writing and maths, often at the expense of other curriculum areas.

Last year, Education Central canvassed teachers to find Hipkins’ views echoed those of many teachers.

Jess Byrne felt National Standards weren’t an accurate measure – particularly for our youngest students.

“I am also very concerned that for our most vulnerable students these measures could be very detrimental to their self-esteem. They clearly highlight the student’s deficits and take away any recognition of strengths in other learning areas.”

“The language of ‘above’, ‘at’ or ‘below’ the standard is just cruel,” agreed Sheherazad Bhote, who also had concerns that National Standards didn’t support the idea that children learn at their own speed.

Many educators also resented the fact that National Standards data could be used to publicly compare schools, as this opened up the possibility of discrimination against children with English as a second language or special learning needs who might ‘skew’ the data.

There is broad agreement in education circles that the emphasis should be on an individual student’s progress, rather than reaching an arbitrary standard. It’s hard to argue with that. All parents want to see progression in their child’s learning, regardless of whether they are struggling or gifted. After all, an ‘above’ measure, while reassuring, doesn’t tell you all that much about whether your child has made any improvement.

The challenge for schools is how to demonstrate this progress to parents.

Range of assessment tools available

Hipkins says that rather than relying on one tool, teachers can use a range of assessment tools to understand students’ progress across the full curricula. Schools have generally been doing this for some time anyway and many insist that it is a case of ‘business as usual’ in the new post-National Standards era.

Yet there will be parents all around New Zealand, just like me, searching school reports for answers to the key questions: Are my children making progress? Are they where they should be? And of course, are they decent little human beings?

Upon closer reading, I found all the answers I was seeking. The report was crammed with detail about what he was learning, how he was performing against the school competencies, and his next learning steps.

But is this merely good fortune that the school has worked hard to establish a new and effective system of reporting to parents? With no clear guidance from the Ministry of Education, schools are left grappling with how to forge their own way.

Some have opted simply to continue with a system based largely on the National Standards system. Others have used the opportunity to delve into other learning areas and competencies of the curriculum and measure against those.

A number of schools are supplementing the formal twice-yearly reports with real-time reporting to parents with apps like Linc-Ed and SeeSaw.

The biggest challenge for schools, as they wean parents off National Standards, will be to find a way that works for them and their community to clearly articulate children’s progress and a sense of whether they’re achieving at the expected level.

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