Red Alert

National Standards are the problem

Posted by on February 16th, 2013

This week’s Listener has an article (unfortunately pay-walled online) about supposed ‘grade inflation’ in primary school tests. The allegation comes as a result of changes to the marking guides for key assessment tools teachers use to measure student progress in core areas like literacy and numeracy. Principals are reporting vastly different results that they claim over-inflate the amount of progress students have made during the year.

The tools concerned, e-asTTle and STAR, are used by schools to assess writing and reading respectively. The issue at hand appears to be that the underlying assumptions used to produce test ‘results’ have changed. For example:

The old e-asTTle test looked at the piece of writing each student did during a test, and gave results purely on face value. The new one uses that piece of writing as a starting point, and extrapolates to what the student could probably do with support from his or her teacher and without the pressure of the test.

There is nothing necessarily wrong with this change. e-asTTle is only a tool, and the results it produces need to be weighed up against a number of other things including teachers observations, interviews and a child’s written work. The problem comes because e-asTTle and STAR results are often used in the reporting of National Standards progress to parents.

…some principals are worried that less-scrupulous schools – or those whose staff simply don’t understand how the tests have changed – could be using the results to artificially boost their National Standards results. That in turn could give schools a higher ranking in the public league tables.

Paul Drummond, principal of Tahunanui School and outgoing head of the New Zealand Principals’ Federation sums up the problem:

“I’d like to think there was professional integrity around this, [but] there are going to be enormous pressures to the contrary – to actually spin your data. There is so much pressure put on for schools to look good in those judgments, those scores.”

I have a lot of faith in the integrity of our teachers, and I don’t think they would deliberately inflate student results. However, if the National government go ahead with the plans they’ve got Treasury working on at the moment and introduce ‘performance’ pay for teachers, things could well be different.

If a teacher’s pay at the end of the week is going to be determined by a narrow range of student test results, there will be every incentive in the world for them to use every means available to make those results look as good as they possibly can.

The fundamental problem is that National Standards are narrowing the focus of teaching and learning too much. There are no national standards in science or art for example. Linking teacher pay to National Standards results is only going to make that problem worse.

Instead of taking such a narrow-minded approach, we need to replace National Standards with a requirement for schools to report to parents regularly and in plain language how their child is progressing against the whole curriculum. Instead of attempting to measure teacher performance by looking at a narrow range of test results, we should be focused on encouraging ongoing professional development and establishing a robust attestation process that factors in all elements of effective teaching.


17 Responses to “National Standards are the problem”

  1. HJ says:

    Thanks for this Chris. Teachers are under a lot of pressure to focus only on Reading, Writing and Maths.
    One way is through compulsory target setting that can only be about National Standards. While we would love to set targets in Science or PE for example we would have to do this as an extra. In some cases the targeted students are those who are already getting lots of support but face learning challenges. The pressure on teachers who work with these students is already adding stress.
    In many schools professional development is only available in Literacy and Numeracy. There are no or very few advisers left in The Arts, Science, Gifted Ed or The Humanities even if a wise school tried to seek them out.
    Regarding the e-AsTTle writing test- you would do well to set someone sniffing out the the timeline. My understanding is that the manual said nothing about changed “assumptions” about the grading. The explanation only came up after teachers queried the results.
    My friend’s child went from 4B at mid year to 6B at end of year. This is four years of progress in less than 6 months. The school increased the grade from AT to ABOVE National Standard. My school used judgements based on the old rubric system ( we did not enter the results into e-AsTTle) Our students made expected and realistic gains.

    Conspiracy or Incompetence in the test creation..either is a disaster.

  2. Kelvin Smythe says:

    [Comment deleted at Kelvin's request]

  3. pmofnz says:

    “Instead of taking such a narrow-minded approach, we need to…”

    One of these days one would hope that those being utterly narrow minded by remaining ideologically opposed to performance measurement or any sort will be reined in or shown the door.

    A child’s educational achievement and performance should be measured against known standards, not some subjective assessment by an often unionised drone looking to preserve their tenure.

    National Standards may not be the perfect vehicle at present during early implementations, but as part of the above ‘… we need to …’ one would hope that the narrow minded are doing every thing to improve those standards rather than continually being totally negative.

    For our education systems to be ‘world class’ the ideologically opposed are missing one key element in the quality control cycle of continuous improvements. That of being measured to a known standard.

    As this definitely includes measurement of teacher performance, I say get on with National Standards as the measurement tool and make it work!

  4. HJ, I think one of the problems with National Standards is they can place a lot of emphasis on students who are just below the line and those already meeting the standard don’t get extended while those really struggling don’t always get the support they need. We need to put a lot more resource into supporting kids with identified learning difficulties.
    Kelvin, I don’t think that questioning the integrity of teachers is a good way of demonstrating that you feel their pain. I have huge faith that teachers will do the right thing and not use the changes in e-asTTle and STAR tests to inflate their results. To suggest they will is a real slap in the face to them.
    pmofnz, you say that a child’s performance should not be measured against some “subjective assessment” but that is exactly what National Standards are. They’re not moderated and results can very considerably from teacher to teacher and school to school. You’re half right though, the schools and teachers who are striving for continual improvement are constantly assessing, but they’re assessing against a broad range of measures, not the narrow set defined by National Standards.

  5. Grant Hay says:

    On the one hand:

    “Kelvin, I don’t think that questioning the integrity of teachers is a good way of demonstrating that you feel their pain”.

    And on the other :

    Paul Drummond, … sums up the problem:

    “I’d like to think there was professional integrity around this, [but] there are going to be enormous pressures to the contrary – to actually spin your data. There is so much pressure put on for schools to look good in those judgments, those scores.”

    So you’d be criticising Paul Drummond as well?..

  6. pmofnz says:

    CH, so other than attempting continued political point scoring with rampant ideological negativity, what is Labour doing to assist in widening National Standards and improving moderation?

    The government of the day has decided that there will be written standards for assessment, something long overdue, which your members job is to get on with and constructively implement without question.

  7. Grant – no I think Paul Drummond has summarised it well. Despite the pressure that will be on them, I think teachers will behave responsibly and ethically. The problem is the standards themselves, not the assessment tools or the professionalism of the teachers.

  8. Grant Hay says:

    What is the substantive difference between this:

    “…some principals are worried that less-scrupulous schools – or those whose staff simply don’t understand how the tests have changed – could be using the results to artificially boost their National Standards results. That in turn could give schools a higher ranking in the public league tables”.

    and this:

    “I’d like to think there was professional integrity around this, [but] there are going to be enormous pressures to the contrary – to actually spin your data. There is so much pressure put on for schools to look good in those judgments, those scores.”

  9. What’s your point Grant? I’ve acknowledged the pressure teachers are under to present the best possible results, stated I have trust in their professionalism, and pointed to the wider questions this raises about the whole concept of National Standards. I took Kelvin’s objection to the ‘tone’ of my post to mean he rejected my faith in teachers’ professionalism. If I’m wrong, I’m sure he will correct me.

  10. Grant Hay says:

    My point is that you had a back-handed swipe at Kelvin for saying the self same thing that Paul Drummond said. But in the case of Paul’s quote you were using it to support your argument. Inconsistent??

  11. Grant Hay says:

    To clarify further: Your reference;

    “Kelvin, I don’t think that questioning the integrity of teachers is a good way of demonstrating that you feel their pain.”

    Clearly relates to the phrase; “…some principals are worried that less-scrupulous schools – or those whose staff simply don’t understand how the tests have changed – could be using the results to artificially boost their National Standards results. That in turn could give schools a higher ranking in the public league tables”.

    You can’t have it both ways. Either Kelvin and Paul are both saying something that is correct, or they’re not…

  12. Fair enough Grant. I accept that my response to Kelvin was a somewhat inflammatory reply to a somewhat inflammatory comment.

  13. Grant Hay says:

    I’d like to tease this out a little further Chris.

    I’ve read your post very closely several times and I’ve read what “HJ” and Kelvin Smythe had to say. It appears we all agree that National Standards are not the way to go. Kelvin has obviously put considerable effort into organising some resistance to the introduction of Nat Stds based on rational argument and what could best be described as “go slow resistance” and his ire at the fact that you are damaging his case is surely justified?

    Your own reaction seems to be based simply on umbrage that he expressed offence at the effect your post may have had on his campaign.

    I’m still at something of a loss to understand exactly what the purpose of your post was. If it was to protest the implicit allegation that either schools or individual teachers would fudge the results of testing tools, then I think we have already proved that Kelvin is not the only person suggesting that is a possible outcome of the process.

    Indeed, despite your professed faith in teacher integrity, your very next sentence;

    “If a teacher’s pay at the end of the week is going to be determined by a narrow range of student test results, there will be every incentive in the world for them to use every means available to make those results look as good as they possibly can.”

    suggests that their integrity could indeed be compromised by personal venality if their pay packets depend on it.

    I am still unsure based on my reading of your post, HJ’s response to it and your reply to him, whether it is in fact the case that the e-AsTTle manual now stipulates a changed interpretation methodology, or whether as HJ suggests may be the case, some schools are in fact already playing fast and loose to make themselves look good. If this is the case then the whole premise of your post starts to look a little shaky.

    Some clarification of these issues would be much appreciated.

  14. The purpose of my post was to further discussion on the issue and make the points I did. I’m still not entirely sure what aspect of that you and Kelvin have taken unmbrage at? How did you feel my original post damaged Kelvin’s case against national standards? If anything, I thought I raised issues that weren’t canvassed in The Listener article about performance pay. There may well be issues around the communication of the changes made to the assessment tools to teachers. Those arguments are raised in The Listener article too (perhaps you feel may comment that the changes themselves aren’t necessarily wrong contradicts that? It wasn’t intended to).

    I have no time for National Standards, and Labour is certainly going to keep opposing them. But I’m always mindful of how easily the debate can be manipulated (on both sides) into an attack on the integrity of teachers, and that’s something I just won’t support. I wonder if perhaps we’ve started taking at cross purposes unnecessarily?

  15. Grant Hay says:

    Thanks for your reply Chris, though my eyes were crossing from the strain of trying to untangle your prose by the time I was half way through reading it. :)

    A cynic would say it was a politicians answer which skillfully managed to use many words to say very little.

  16. bbfloyd says:

    @kelvin smythe…. I would have thought an intelligent person like yourself would be able to recognise the simple fact of “human nature”… the vast majority of teachers that I have had contact with, or was taught by, are principled people who are rightly opposed to what is being forced onto ur children…

    However…. Can you honestly state that there aren’t ANY teachers (or more to the point, principals) who won’t be tempted (at the least for the sake of their own schools funding, on behalf of their pupils) to manipulate the figures?

    I would hesitate to label you as naive, but this is the real world, and several decades of brainwashing to produce whole populations of self interested individuals who see the acquisition of money as the main indicator of success has left it’s taint on every sector of society…

    That said, the teaching profession in New Zealand is remarkably “pure” in that regard when compared to other countries where the “me first” paradigm has taken deep roots..

    This was given to me by another commenter to show an actual outcome from what the current raiding party are trying to inflict on us, by generally dishonest, and dispicable methods.
    http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/education-of-michelle-rhee/

    Rather than making your argument irrelevant with purely emotive reaction, maybe some realism would give your task a greater impetus…

    Remember… extremism is as destructive to sensible debate as the blatant misrepresentation, and scapegoating that the current raiding party is using to justify it’s attack on our children…

  17. Grant Hay says:

    @bbfloyd. Here is the quote from the Listener article lifted from Chris’s post above:

    “…some principals are worried that less-scrupulous schools – or those whose staff simply don’t understand how the tests have changed – could be using the results to artificially boost their National Standards results. That in turn could give schools a higher ranking in the public league tables.”

    I haven’t read the whole article because it’s behind a paywall but is this quote the basis for your chiding Kelvin for being naive?

    If so I think you’re misreading him. I read him as saying (or reporting what some pricipals think) that it is indeed likely that some schools and or teachers may be tempted to fudge the figures when their league table results and possibly pay (if linked to performance pay) is at stake. This is not a case of being naive. He is saying exactly what you are. Chris Hipkins was implying that it was wrong (of Kelvin) to suggest that the integrity of schools or teachers might be at risk (but then he effectively admitted that it was).