By: Lynda Stuart
As National Standards gets shown the door it’s worth remembering what the world looked like eight years ago. Back then, parents weren’t in the dark about their children’s academic progress.
Teachers weren’t scratching their heads, wondering whether their students were learning the “right” things at the “right” time.
In 2010, National Standards was dumped on parents, children and their teachers without any consultation.
It was simply how things must now be done, with children expected to be at a particular point in reading, writing and mathematics when each school reported results to the ministry.
The argument was that more measurement and data would enable teachers to know children’s next learning steps and this would ultimately result in higher achievement. In reality, none of these goals would be achieved.
New Zealand slipped down the international rankings, while education for a generation of children was compromised and stifled, as teaching and learning became focused around narrow concepts of success in the 3Rs.
For many teachers and principals like me, the standards were an affront to our professionalism, treating us as if we didn’t already measure and understand how our students were tracking against the New Zealand Curriculum or Te Marautanga o Aotearoa (the national curriculum for Māori-medium).
We have always used a range of assessment tools such as PAT and AsTLe to check progress and will continue to do so.
Teachers communicated with parents and whanau throughout the year, and bi-annual reports and associated parent-teacher conferences celebrated their child’s enthusiasm for learning, their developing social skills and gave quality information about their progress across the broad curriculum, not just in reading, writing and mathematics.
We weren’t living in an information vacuum then, and the demise of National Standards won’t create one now.
The end of National Standards means teachers should now be free to assess FOR learning, rather than doing assessment OF learning. And this is the crucial difference.
Now, we’ll be free to use any of the professionally sound summative and formative assessment tools, including teacher judgment, that we currently use to assess and report on individual children’s progress and learning success.
It means the full, rich curriculum will again be valued and taught, without schools feeling pressured to focus largely on only the three subjects the former Government considered worthy of measurement.
This was particularly true of low-decile schools where much ground had to be made up to meet the target in time, for many reasons, including that English wasn’t always a child’s first language, and the strengths these children bring to school are not the things that the government prioritised.
Children with special learning needs were particularly disadvantaged under National Standards – we were still required to assess and report their progress like we would for any other child. These children were on a hiding to nothing, with no “official” measure of their unique potential or successes.
I suppose the previous Government thought teachers would eventually get used to National Standards and maybe even come to like it. But you never get a taste for having to tell parents that their child has made great progress, but hasn’t hit the mandated target at the prescribed time.
It never feels good having to tell a child that they’re now “below” standard because they missed out on two months of school while they were in hospital. And imagine having to remind a family that their autistic son will always be “well below” standard in every report card.
Anyone under the impression that parents will nonetheless be sad to see National Standards go should think again.
Qualitative research conducted for NZEI in 2013 found most parents did not agree with National Standards. Parents viewed it as a one-size-fits-all approach that did not cater to all learning styles and abilities.
They were also cynical about the Government’s position that children identified as needing extra help would receive it – in reality, the resources simply weren’t available. That has only become more obvious in the four years since.
Yet, still the question is asked by a few, with what will we replace National Standards?
How about: more time for teaching and learning, increased funding for specialists, teacher aides, professional support and other learning resources.
It’s these things that will raise achievement for our children, not constant assessment.
We’d also like to see the return of national sampling studies across the curriculum that checked whether the education system was working for all students, without over-assessing individual children.
NZEI has also asked the new minister to support and resource a re-launch of the NZ Curriculum and Te Marautanga o Aotearoa with associated professional learning and development, particularly to support those teachers who started their careers in the past nine years.
This will help them build confidence in their knowledge of the curricular and their use of assessment for learning.
A relaunch would send a clear reminder that every part of our broad, rich curriculum is valued and important for our students.
The end of National Standards is just the beginning of what our students need, but it’s a beginning that has prompted delighted smiles in school staffrooms the length of the country. It’s a great start.
Lynda Stuart is national president of the primary teachers’ union, NZEI Te Riu Roa.