National Standards became part of New Zealand’s education system in 2009, in response to concerns that one in five students were leaving school without basic literacy and numeracy skills (Oakley, 2010). The National Party campaigned in 2008 that adopting a standardised approach to assessment and a focus on lifting achievement and improving teaching responses would ensure that all students finish school with NCEA Level 2.
Echoing international failures
The adoption of a standardised approach reflects other international responses to concerns regarding student achievement levels. Countries including the United Kingdom and the United States have implemented similar policies. However the national testing regime and standardised approach in these countries have negatively impacted the very students they were intended to target for raised achievement (British Columbia Teachers’ Federation, 2009; Robinson & Aronica, 2015; Thrupp, 2009).
Concerns over international practices have resulted in vocal opposition to their implementation locally. Internationally, research demonstrates that contrary to the intended outcomes, adopting a national standardised approach to assessing student progress has resulted in a “less equitable and less authentic” (Thrupp, 2009, p. 213) delivery of education to students and nowhere more so, than the specific area of the new entrant classroom (Carlson-Paige, Almon & McLaughlin, 2015). National Standards reporting and assessment in New Zealand has been felt most significantly by students entering the primary school system, usually at age five, and those who teach them.
Children begin school with a wide range of skill sets and knowledge. Some begin school with age-appropriate skills and demonstrate a readiness to learn. Others arrive with low language and number concept skills, and/or low social and emotional development. Furthermore, a child’s early childhood experiences and socio-economic status have an impact on the success of a student’s transition into the formal education system (Peters, 2010).
For a smooth transition to occur, teachers need to connect with their learners and the knowledge they bring with them as a base-line for new learning and the development of positive engagement in school. Children feel valued when their knowledge and skills appear to match the agenda and values of their teacher (Brooker & Woodhead, 2008).
However, a successful transition – one in which the teacher makes valued connections and assists the child to learn how to operate within the primary school structure – can take up to one year for some students and needs to be managed carefully (Powell, 2005).
The introduction of National Standards has placed mandatory assessment and reporting on teachers both as an interim after having attended for two terms, as well as at the end of a child’s first year at school. Teachers use the Six-Year Net assessment tool to assist them in reporting on how many students within their first year at school have met the required standard.
Prior to the introduction of National Standards, there was no standardised benchmark against which new entrant teachers measured their students after their first year at school, other than assessments made by those teachers who wished to access Reading Recovery funding for the following school year. As a result, schools monitored the progress of their students and planned accordingly in relation to their individual needs. Students who began school with a significant deficit in skills and knowledge were supported individually throughout their transition. Curriculum delivery was adapted to meet their needs and to ensure that students successfully transitioned to school without the pressure to meet expected outcomes that were beyond their developmental reach.
National Standards now require teachers to ensure that all learners are reading at Green 1 Level by the end of their first year at school, regardless of their skills, knowledge and cultural capital upon entry to the school system. Should students not be operating at this level after one year at school, teachers are required to put in place a programme of “accelerated achievement” (Ministry of Education, 2015) in order to increase the proportion of students who are working at or above the expected standard. Successful transition should not be at the expense of getting all students to an arbitrary standard, regardless of their starting point. The reputation and confidence of a learner are established through the basis of a narrow range of skills assessed during this year (Peters, 2004).
Limiting effect of National Standards
The purpose of the first year of school is to establish a sense of belonging and wellbeing at school, as well as to learn the ‘doing school’ before focusing on the content of learning itself (Brooker & Woodhead, 2008). The impact of having students work to meet a mandatory standard within the first year has meant that teachers have less time to meet the individual and developmental needs of their learners (Robinson, 2015; British Columbia Teachers’ Federation, 2009).
Students developmentally behind their peers are targeted for remedial group work, specific learning programmes and individual teaching in order to accelerate their learning. Extra assistance provided for targeted students in this first year of schooling is at the expense of providing creative, exciting and joyous learning experiences in the classroom (British Columbia Teachers’ Federation, 2009).
Students learn when they are engaged in classroom tasks. By making the learning process dynamic and enjoyable, students are more likely to become engaged (British Columbia Teachers’ Federation, 2009). If tasks set are not exciting, or are arduous or developmentally too challenging, students will disengage. Engagement is a key aspect of a successful transition and in building the foundation for a disposition for future learning (Peters, 2010).
The establishment of the standards that students are expected to meet after the first year of school do not reflect the individualised and complex developmental trajectory of students (Hattie, 2009, in Peters, 2010).
New entrants’ ‘start lines’ are not all equal, and yet after one year at school they are expected to reach exactly the same finish line, at exactly the same time. Many students are able to begin their race at a well-developed running pace, whereas others begin at a crawl.
A successful transition to school should be focused on creating confident and connected students with a positive disposition for learning, rather than a specific and narrow knowledge-base (Carr, Smith, Duncan, Jones, Lee & Marshall, 2009). Children’s learning dispositions are impacted upon when “a curriculum is packed with compulsory tasks, tight scheduling and summative assessments” – practices reflective of the impact standardisation has on the new entrant teaching programme (Carr et al., 2009, p. 220).
The first six months should focus on teaching to student interests and flexible programming, as well as individualised assessment processes, such as learning portfolios that demonstrate the progress of learning, rather than the attainment of specific skills (Powell, 2005). This will then support the development of positive learning dispositions and identity as a successful learner within the school setting.
Learning is the exciting process of constructing meaning. Young children are naturally predisposed to exploring that which draws their interest and engages them. In order for them to continue to grow this disposition, they must feel connected to their learning environment and confident in their abilities as a learner. Teachers must provide opportunities for students within the first year of schooling that enables them to establish these connections and allow them to understand why they are at school. Students need the opportunity to understand their own, individual learning progress and what makes them a successful learner, rather than being labelled as ‘below’ or ‘well below’ a standard within their first year at school.
- British Columbia Teachers’ Federation. (2009, August). Instruction, assessment, and learning: From standardization to a focus on students. Retrieved from bctf.ca/uploadedFiles/Public/Publications/Briefs/InstructionAssessmentLearning.pdf
- Brooker, L. & Woodhead, M. (Eds) (2008). Developing Positive Identities. Early Childhood in Focus 3. Milton Keynes, UK: Open University.
- Carlsson-Paige, N., Almon, J. & McLaughlin, G. (2015). Reading Instruction in Kindergarten: Little to Gain and Much to Lose. Boston, MA: Defending the Early Years; New York, NY: Alliance for Childhood.
- Carr, M., Smith, A.B., Duncan, J., Jones, C., Lee, W., & Marshall, K. (2009). Learning in the making: Disposition and design in the early years. Rotterdam: Sense.
- Ministry of Education, (2015). Inquiry for Accelerated Progress. Retrieved from nzcurriculum.tki.org.nz/National-Standards/Key-information/Inquiry-for-accelerated-progress
- Oakley, C. (2010). National Standards: Parliamentary Library Research Paper. Retrieved from media.nzherald.co.nz/webcontent/document/pdf/standards.pdf
- Peters, S. (2010). Literature Review: Transition from Early Childhood Education to School. Wellington, NZ: Ministry of Education.
- Powell, R. (2005, November). Focus: Transitioning 5-year-olds to School. Retrieved from educationalleaders.govt.nz/content/…/powell-sabbatical-05.pdf
- Robinson, K., & Aronica, L. (2015). Creative Schools. The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education. New York, NY: Viking.
- Thrupp, M. (2008). National Standards for New Zealand’s Primary and Intermediate School Pupils. New Zealand Annual Review of Education, 17, 199-218.