Making the grade

by Pamela Stirling / 14 April, 2007

You know there's a problem with the education system when only one of the 3 Rs begins with an R. But John Key's call this week to test all primary school children in reading, writing and mathematics, and to report those results back to parents, still drew an angry response from some quarters of the education sector. There is relief that National is not proposing an overly prescriptive test similar to those used in the United States and Britain; Key says he will seek the advice of educationalists here in deciding which tests would be acceptable. But because schools will be required to tell parents how their children and their school rate against national benchmarks, the Principals' Federation president Judy Hanna criticised National's policy as a "vote grabbing exercise" and a "cynical attempt to place election votes ahead of student wellbeing and learning". Principals, Hanna says, will not co-operate with such plans. She describes them as "sticking the knife into schools".

Knife? Given that both the Prime Minister and the national president of the primary teacher's union both claimed this week that students are already thoroughly tested in schools, it's hard to see exactly how Key's proposal can harm students' wellbeing and learning. Key assures us that he is not proposing School Certificate for six-year-olds. Identifying struggling students more clearly can only help address the huge tail of underachievement in New Zealand. There is caution about the possibility of league tables, but information about schools is already available to parents in the form of Education Review Office reports.

The problem, as principals like Pakuranga College's Heather McRae point out, is that secondary schools often inherit students in the third form who have difficulties with reading, writing and numeracy. Assessing them early with national guidelines can only make it easier for schools to help them. Right now an appalling one in five children leaves school barely able to read or write. They deserve a better system.

That fact was underlined last week by the findings of an Education Review Office report. It found that 39 percent of primary schools were only partially effective, with substantial weaknesses in reporting achievement information to parents, and 10 percent were not effective. Indeed, the ERO concluded, "many schools still need help in developing school-wide assessment policies, procedures and practices across all aspects of students' learning".

That resistance within so many schools to grading and evaluation is not matched by the public. One only has to look at the extraordinary popularity of TV programmes like American Idol, America's Next Top Model and Dancing with the Stars. It's worth quoting a recent article in the Chronicle, the US journal of higher education. We might think, it says, that young people are eager to thumb their noses at assessment. "But what American Idol reveals instead is a veritable hunger for realistic evaluation." In a world where so many young people have mastered the self-esteem and attitude so valued in our culture and display "untalented braggadocio", audiences seem to long for the enforcement of standards.

In some New Zealand schools, however, there still appears to be the belief that the purpose of schooling is to raise self-esteem. There is a well-intentioned view that lifting self-esteem will itself raise performance. Not true. Self-esteem is only weakly predictive of future academic achievement. Some findings even suggest that artificially boosting self-esteem may lower subsequent performance.

Here, the fact that the Qualifications Authority has refused to record failure on the academic record and will not give NCEA results in marks is widely criticised even by students themselves as a demotivator. It's deeply ironic that when the NZQA releases data on schools' own performance, it does so not as broad "achieved" or "not achieved" standards but in percentage figures.

To quote once more from the Chronicle on the value of clear standards. "Again and again, the judges [on American Idol] mirror audience incredulity at poor performers who think they are great." It's what teachers encounter all the time, it says. "Most people are not astutely self-critical or even open to constructive appraisal." Learning how to learn from coaching and criticism can be a challenge. But ultimately, says the journal, the most successful contestants, like successful students, do just that and improve notably in the course of the programme or school year. We call it education.

And it involves giving every student the chance to be tested in every sense.


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