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.

Latest

How NZ women won the right to vote first: The original disruptors & spiteful MPs
96463 2018-09-19 00:00:00Z History

How NZ women won the right to vote first: The orig…

by Vomle Springford

Is it right that while the loafer, the gambler, the drunkard, and even the wife-beater has a vote, earnest, educated and refined women are denied it?

Read more
Fémmina: The story of NZ's unsung suffrage provocateur Mary Ann Müller
96479 2018-09-19 00:00:00Z History

Fémmina: The story of NZ's unsung suffrage provoca…

by Cathie Bell

Mary Ann Müller was fighting for women’s rights before Kate Sheppard even arrived here, but her pioneering contribution to the cause is little known.

Read more
How Marilyn Waring went from political prodigy to international influencer
96505 2018-09-19 00:00:00Z Profiles

How Marilyn Waring went from political prodigy to …

by Clare de Lore

Marilyn Waring is nearing the last chapter of an account of her time as an MP, which ended abruptly with the calling of a snap election.

Read more
Ian McKellen charms his way through a documentary about his life
96472 2018-09-19 00:00:00Z Movies

Ian McKellen charms his way through a documentary …

by James Robins

Joe Stephenson’s tender documentary Playing the Part looks at McKellen's life as an actor, activist and perpetual wizard.

Read more
The Chosen Bun: A smart new burger joint opens in Stonefields
96507 2018-09-19 00:00:00Z Auckland Eats

The Chosen Bun: A smart new burger joint opens in …

by Alex Blackwood

Burgers, milkshakes and fries are not rare things to find in Auckland, so The Chosen Bun's owners were smart to be very picky about their ingredients.

Read more
The brutality experienced by the suffragettes
11636 2018-09-19 00:00:00Z Listener NZ 2015

The brutality experienced by the suffragettes

by Sally Blundell

As we mark 125 years since NZ women got the right to vote, we must remember it didn't come easily.

Read more
The case for closing prisons
96403 2018-09-18 00:00:00Z Social issues

The case for closing prisons

by Paul Little

If we want a prison system that does a better job than the current one, alternatives aren’t hard to find.

Read more
Jennifer Curtin: The feminist political scientist mixing rugby with politics
96422 2018-09-18 00:00:00Z Profiles

Jennifer Curtin: The feminist political scientist …

by Clare de Lore

Australian-New Zealander Jennifer Curtin says the lopsided nature of the Bledisloe Cup pales in comparison to the slump in transtasman relations.

Read more