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CALEB ANDERSON: One single action guaranteed to lift educational achievement in NZ

Jack Tame's interview with Education Minister Jan Tinetti this weekend was indeed grim listening.

When repeatedly asked if the Ministry had data sufficiently good to tell us how students at various levels of the system were achieving, Ms Tinetti responded that the Ministry has good data on how students are progressing.

While data on progress is of critical importance when assessing an individual student's learning journey, it is near to useless in assessing the performance of cohorts of students, and therefore in measuring the effectiveness of learning interventions overall. The truth is that the Ministry of Education is flying blind, and it has been flying blind for a long time. It has very poor data on how students, in aggregate, are achieving, and little idea of how to target resources to address deficiencies.

The reasons we do not have this data are ideological, and pedagogical, and not pragmatic.

The education sector has long opposed the collection of comparative data, and has obstructed any efforts toward this end. This opposition is driven by a widespread view in education that comparative data ...

1. Unfairly damages underachieving students which ensures their on-going failure.

2. Unfairly stigmatizes schools with low achievement levels, when poor achievement may have little to do with the quality of instruction in these schools.

3. Emphasises content (knowledge) over the learning process (skills). With the latter considered to be of significantly greater importance.

4. Undermines a school's ability to develop a curriculum uniquely relevant to their school community.

5. Inevitably results in assessments that are culturally biased and which do not reflect the many ways students learn and grow.

6. Advances the argument that if student achievement can be accurately measured, so too can the performance of teachers.

While these arguments highlight some valid potential downsides to the collection of achievement data, these downsides need to be weighed against the potential upsides.

The truth is that opposition to the collection of standardized achievement data has come from academics who have argued that this sort of data collection produces inequitable outcomes, and from teacher unions, petrified that such data could be used to bolster the case for performance-based pay. While there may be some validity to these concerns, this does not mean these concerns could not be mitigated where there was a will to do so.

While more equitable outcomes may be desirable, there is no evidence to suggest that hiding poor educational achievement, by not measuring it, does any favours to anyone, not least underachieving students. Accurate, cohort-based, standardized, data is critical if educational outcomes are to be improved. This would provide a very clear picture of where the system is working, and where it is not working, which ideas and schools require emulation, and which require remediation, and support.

Standardized testing also provides a clearer picture of what should be expected at each level of the system. This enables teachers to anticipate skill levels on entry to their class, what will be required at the exit from their class, and what necessary knowledge needs to be embedded at each respective level.

Further, the collection of standardized, norm-referenced, data would provide assurances to parents that feedback on their child's performance was accurate, it would provide an indication of how their child was achieving against other children their age, and it would provide clarity on areas of comparative strength and weakness. Parents would no longer be dependent on vague assurances of their child's progress, as these assurances would be undergirded by sound data, perhaps, ironically, providing a much more precise indication of their progress year to year.

Such data would also enable accurate target setting at the local and national level, and it would promote more effective targeting of resources.

While the National Standards implemented by the previous National Government ultimately failed, this does not mean the idea was a bad one. These standards failed because they were poorly designed, and because the education sector refused to implement these in good faith. There was also an unnecessary, unhelpful, and even provocative insistence that this data be made available in national league tables.

It has been argued by opponents of National Standards that these exacerbate inequities and impoverish learning. This is nonsense. National testing of students existed in New Zealand right up until the nineteen nineties at which time our educational standards were world-leading. It might be argued that it is the demise of these tests that has contributed to our decline.

Many of the arguments proffered against the national testing of students are valid. But there is absolutely no reason why these arguments could not be addressed at the level of test design, and by ensuring that more general formative data, and impressions, continue to comprise a part of the assessment mix. For decades New Zealand students sat Progress and Achievement Tests in Listening, Reading, Writing, and Mathematics. I know of no teacher who ever saw these as the full picture, who did not bring in other data and impressions when reporting on a student's attainment, or who saw these as an invitation to compromise the quality and delivery of their programmes.

The unwillingness of sector groups to find a middle ground on this is proof positive that self-interest and ideology lie at the heart of their opposition to any form of national testing.

I am skeptical that the idealogues who populate the Ministry of Education, and education at large, will take this necessary step to halt our decline. So brace yourself for worse to come, and the inevitable refrain that national testing is a Western construct, and therefore racist.

Every decision we make in life is a trade-off. Those who inhabit the ivory towers of academia, and the various agencies of state, may deny this reality, but the rest of us do not have this luxury, and nor does the next generation. We know the world does not work that way!

Caleb Anderson, a graduate history, economics, psychotherapy and theology, has been an educator for over thirty years, twenty as a school principal.

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