Public property: schools’ achievement

December 2012


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The decision to make National Standards results public has angered many schools and unions. But will it help lift performance as predicted?

The National Standards data, as displayed on the Ministry of Education’s Education Counts website, looks quite at home among the tabs for individual schools, which also include details on the school’s population and profile. When clicking on the National Standards tab, a disclaimer message pops up to warn viewers that ‘this data represents part of a picture and should be considered alongside other information’.

The disclaimer helps to deflect some schools’ concerns around misinterpreting the data. For example, Shirley Hardcastle, principal of Devonport School, says she is concerned about parents misinterpreting results when comparing local schools and making decisions that may actually be harmful for their children.

“Parents in high decile communities are very motivated to ensure their child has the best possible start in their education, and we applaud them for that. However, this can also lead to a high level of anxiety for some parents. Unless they are fully aware that National Standards have issues of reliability and validity, they may misjudge schools. We would hate to see children taken out of schools and enrolled elsewhere as a result,” she says.

Paul Drummond, president of the New Zealand Principals’ Federation, agrees, describing the data as “immature”, giving parents an incomplete picture of a whole school.

However, Education Minister Hekia Parata says the standards were “in good shape”, an improvement on Prime Minister John Key’s “very ropey” verdict delivered in July.

According to analysis by Fairfax Media, the results confirm long-standing education trends. Girls performed better than boys. Māori and Pasifika children were over-represented among those below and well below the standards in reading, writing, and maths. Thirty-two per cent were below or well below the standard for writing, 28.4 per cent were below or well below in maths, and 23.7 per cent were below in reading.

While it makes interesting reading, it is the media’s exploitation of the data that has the schools and unions concerned. Many believe the ability to manipulate the data into league tables could be damaging and unfair for many schools.

NZEI national president Ian Leckie says National Standards league tables simply reinforce people's prejudices about communities and lead to increased educational inequity, a theme that has been picked up on by commentator, Jim Traue in **The Press***.

Traue says the published data only represents the value added by teachers and doesn’t take into account the starting level of the child. A child who arrives at school following five years of conversation and being read to will undoubtedly meet reading standards better than a child who has been exposed to very little conversation and reading. Traue questions whether the major problem is failures within the schooling system or inequality at the classroom door.

From the outset, it appears the Government is looking at the bigger picture, and while they want to present the most accurate picture possible to the public, the aim is for more transparency and more information to drive performance in the long run.

The Prime Minister says that the Government’s hope is that over time the data presented will become more consistent, and by having better information available, gives parents a better sense of how their school is performing. "

"National Standards gives us an opportunity to dig deeper...into information at a learner level," says Parata.

The standards, a flagship education policy of this Government, assess all children aged five to 12 as being at, above, below, or well below benchmarks in reading, writing, and maths.

However, the Education Review Office report, Working with National Standards to Promote Students' Progress and Achievement reveals there is still much work to be done before schools are working effectively with National Standards. Of the 439 schools in the ERO evaluation, 22 per cent were working well with the standards, 59 per cent were "developing their systems and processes" to work with the standards, and 19 per cent were "not working with all the requirements".

The concern held by many is that if not all schools are working with the standards, let alone working well with them, what is to be accomplished by publishing the achievement data?

John Minto, national chairperson of Quality Public Education Coalition (QPEC), believes the publication of the National Standards data will be damaging for schools in a number of ways. He believes the move to do so will lead to many schools being unfairly judged by media and therefore by their local communities. He predicts schools will reduce the breadth of the curriculum to focus on what will now be seen as high stakes National Standards.

Minto says that many schools will be more reluctant to enrol children with special needs as they will lower a school’s National Standards pass rate – something he says is already a problem in secondary schools.

Hardcastle agrees. “For example, if school A reported, say, 10 per cent below for reading, while school B reported 5 per cent, it might seem as though school A was doing a better job but such a conclusion assumes that the student groups are the same and that the teachers are fully informed and moderate with each other. If school A has more special needs or ESOL students then they might negatively skew the results and lead parents to erroneous conclusions.

“I have put some effort into ensuring parents realise that a simple comparison will lead to incorrect conclusions. We would hate to see students moved from school to school unnecessarily,” says Hardcastle.

Also of concern is the notion that children in low decile schools may become less engaged in education as the “drill and kill” takes over. Lower pass rates than those of higher decile schools will lead to the demoralisation and a greater degree of social segregation, says Minto.

While these predictions have stemmed from international experience, where some educationalists have reported these things happening as a result of league tables, there are also signs that they can help increase achievement. Research from the University of Bristol shows that the performance levels of Welsh schools has fallen in the ten years since league tables have been abolished, particularly for schools in the poorer areas. A study earlier this year, showed that the same decrease was not apparent in English schools where the league tables remain, suggesting that the competition provided by the league tables could be a necessary driver for performance.

This is what the New Zealand Government is striving for. "If you don't measure, monitor, and report on things, I don't think you get progress," says Prime Minister John Key.

Attempts to prevent the publication of the National Standards data have been futile, so it is now a case of watching and waiting to see what happens. Will the initiative encourage schools to work better with the National Standards and produce higher achievement outcomes driven by competition? Or will they have the bleak outcomes predicted by those opposed? Let’s hope it’s the former.