Primary Teachers have little to fear from National Standards

March 2010

 

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The introduction of national standards in literacy and numeracy in primary schools is creating concern among primary teachers, principals and their union.

They have little to worry about if the experience of their secondary colleagues under NCEA is anything to go by.

Primary teachers are concerned that the statistics gathered by these assessments will be used to create league tables of schools. Parents will shift their children to ‘successful schools’ based on these published results.

The first flaw in this argument is that most parents are limited in their choice of school based on their ability to purchase a house in a particular school zone. It won’t be a revelation to anyone that schools that draw from lower socio-economic areas will tend to under-perform in any valid measure of academic success. While there may be some variance between schools in particular suburbs, parental choice of school is still restricted by geographic location.

The second reason why primary teachers have little need for concern is that as secondary teachers have discovered, under NCEA the concept of national standards in assessment is an illusion. The reason is that the interpretation of standards by teachers and schools is so variable. Unless the assessment tasks are going to use simple true/false or multiple choice questions there will be large variances in marking standards.

Even without these marking variances are teachers going to be allowed to prep the students to meet the standards by drilling them with the answers? Will students be allowed to resit the standards if they feel the results did not reflect their ability? These are all questions that secondary schools have had to answer under NCEA. Each school has come up with its own answers. This creates further discrepancies in the application of standards between schools.

Unless a system of ‘national standards’ is set and administered and marked by a central authority it is open to manipulation or genuine inconsistencies. This may be despite the best intentions of teachers and administrators. It may also be the result of deliberate manipulation to ensure a creditable set of results.

If the results are to be used for comparing school or teacher performance then there is a large incentive for the manipulation of results. It may come as a shock to the public, but teachers are no more saintly than any other profession, particularly when jobs or promotions are on the line.

The Cambridge High School debacle several years ago is a graphic illustration of how far a school may go to ensure that its performance outstrips other schools. The manipulation of statistical results to paint the best picture has always been a common practice among secondary schools.

Under NCEA, some national standards are marked internally within the school and some are examined externally by an independent panel of markers. There is generally a large variance in pass rates in favor of the internal assessments. Given that the standards being adopted in primary schools will be set and marked internally by the teachers, a similar lack of consistency is likely to arise.

If Education Minister Anne Tolley is serious about a system of national standards for primary schools, then for validity it would need to be externally administered and marked. This is very unlikely given the huge amount of resources required.

Ironically it appears that the New Zealand Qualifications Authority is pushing for more of NCEA to be marked internally by schools. The reason is that administering and marking NCEA to try to maintain national standards in all subjects is extremely costly.

The likely outcome of a system of national standards in primary schools will be a mish-mash of dubious statistics. There will be little basis for valid comparisons between schools. This will be partially due to genuine variances in the application and marking of standards by teachers. It may also be due to the motives and incentives such a system creates. Unfortunately the whole exercise in window-dressing will detract from the time and effort involved in actual teaching.

Even if the data collected was valid it would only confirm what anyone with an interest in education already knows. Students from deprived backgrounds tend to under-perform academically.

Ms Tolley would be using her resources more wisely if she ensured these students had access to the best teachers and facilities.

Peter Lyons teaches Economics at Saint Peter’s College in Epsom.