Quality not quantity

by The Listener / 15 October, 2015
The impulse to glean meaning from a comparison of results at charter and state schools is sound. But it is impossible to actually do so.
Blackboard Tick

The impulse to glean meaning from a comparison of results at charter and state schools is sound. But it is impossible to actually do so. We have no objective, meaningful data to analyse. No statistically solid ground to stand on. The ability to understand our kids’ learning has been eroded by years of this Government’s bullish pressure on pass rates ­coupled with the gradual makeover of NCEA into an extraordinarily permissive regime.

Take those contentious 2014 charter-school results. A breakdown of these has been provided to the Listener under the Official Information Act and is available here along with transcripts of interviews with Dr Nathan Matthews, principal of Te Kura Hourua o Whangarei Terenga Paraoa, and Nick Hyde, Chief Executive Officer of Vanguard Military School.

It’s easy to feel alarmed, with credits for caving, fencing and waiting tables, and a clear pattern of students sticking to internal assessments – and acing them – then coming unstuck when they attempt the occasional exam.

Talk to charter school principals and the picture changes somewhat. These schools are turning out lots of budding mechanics, baristas and possum trappers, but the principals say that’s because lots of students want to be mechanics or baristas or possum trappers. What’s critical here is to determine whether these schools are selling short students who would rather have taken academic options, as the Education Review Office has warned is happening in some state schools. The point is, it’s impossible for us to know.

What about all those internal assessments? Well, the schools have passed all NZQA’s checks. And, the principals point out, you can’t do exams for PE or Maori performing arts or defence force studies, which are ­popular subjects with their kids. Needs must.

To cut a long and complex story short, pass rates at charter schools should be treated with the same scepticism as those of any other school. Big percentages might indicate bright kids, expert teaching and resourceful, invested parents. Or savvy assessment managers may be using slick admin to get students over the line and statistically “disappearing” those who fall short. At worst, high passes can reflect deliberately soft marking, or students being yanked off academic paths if they look like failing. Good luck pinning any of that down, at charter schools or anywhere else.

In this murky national picture, one thing is abundantly clear: pass rates are ascending into farce. Consider this observation from the Ministry of Education in its latest annual report on the compulsory schooling sector: “More young people are achieving qualifications, but that cannot be taken to imply that they are learning more.”

Warnings about the dangerous combination of governmental pressure, internal assessment and non-academic options have been coming from all quarters, including the OECD’s hugely influential education spokesperson and statistician Andreas Schleicher, the ERO, the I Have a Dream Trust, the PPTA, various principals and tertiary institutions. Minister of Education, Hekia Parata, clearly hasn’t taken much of this seriously, but the recent overhaul of qualifications in the United Kingdom should act as a blaring wake-up call. There, a great deal of the internally assessed work has just been cut in favour of exams. The content in subjects such as maths, history and geography is now more difficult and resits are out. Grammar, spelling and punctuation once more count towards final grades. Pass rates have dropped accordingly, and the overriding public reaction is relief. As then Education Minister Elizabeth Truss declared when the changes were announced, “For too long we’ve pretended that students’ results are getting better, when all that’s been happening is the exams have been getting easier.”

Sounds familiar. It is strange to the point of bizarre, then, that Parata remains so focused on quantity over quality. Her latest move? Confirming that a new funding model for schools will “absolutely” see money allocated at least in part according to educational attainment. This defies common sense, and directly contradicts an unequivocal statement from her ministry just weeks before. As Fairfax political reporter Jo Moir has suggested, it appears the minister is “going a bit rogue”. This situation needs to be reined in, and fast.

As for those runaway NCEA pass rates, one simple change would go a long way. Cap the proportion of credits that any student and school can earn through internal assessments. Such a move would at least provide a vantage point; one small patch of stable and objective common ground. The rest is muddy water.

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