I’ve had enough: the truth about high stakes assessment and inflation Part 1

A major difficulty is that the current assessment system is not about children, if it were there would be no great difficulty in changing it, but it is really about controlling the system through the instruments the assessment system provides entrenched bureaucracies and the propaganda derived from manipulated results.

The inflation referred to in the heading might provide relief from official harassment in the short term but to the disadvantage to children and the integrity of the education system in the long. In a later posting I will include details about how this inflation is occurring in schools, what schools are actually doing, the practices involved – but this needs to be preceded by wider explanations so that a context is provided. (The best one –  though admittedly idiosyncratic – is the principal sitting down for a cup of coffee, assessment results in hand, taking a quick riff at them, gulping, rearing to her feet, declaring I’m not having any of this, and rushing to her office to record a decisive improvement in the school’s  learning.) Also in that posting, I will discuss a comprehensive assessment system that enhances teaching and learning and has integrity as an assessment system.

Because they are a corollary of high stakes assessment in a system’s sense, I am not in some moral dudgeon about those inflation practices. If you have high stakes assessment you have assessment inflation; if you have very high stakes assessment (for instance, league tables) you have very high assessment inflation; and in the unique situation that exists in New Zealand where you have high stakes assessment set and marked internally you have very, very high stakes assessment inflation.

The whole thing is a kind of blackmail and, in being so, unfair to teachers and children, serving to mask bad education policies, wrong priorities, investment underfunding, and ideological excess.

And now a new government policy is set to lift the high stakes bar a further notch to establish what might be described as very, very, very high stakes assessment.

The wonder is that the media hasn’t picked up on what is happening, but newspaper editors are protective of government education policies and TV news too shallow to deal with the complexities involved. As well, the ministry of education is backed by a hyperactive and much enlarged media team that moves hard and fast to close down any negative education policy reporting. However, the Listener has some provided some explicit articles on the inflation, and Peter Lyons, the Herald columnist, who is himself a secondary teacher, wrote a sly column on the matter.   Peter Lyons – New Zealand Herald. John Gerritsen for RNZ raised the issue in respect to the use of PACT though that is not entirely relevant here http://www.radionz.co.nz/news/national/275268/national-standards-results-‘lack-dependability’  as the report is about the raw material teachers produce not the role of the functioning of PACT.

Australia has national testing – in other words the setting of the tests and the marking are done away from schools. In the many years of this testing, any improvement has been glacial, not much more than can be explained by teachers and children becoming more sophisticated in preparing for them. In New Zealand primary schools we have national standards testing meaning what is assessed, is more-or less decided by the school and the results are heading in one direction and PISA in another. For NCEA Level 2, there is official oversight and peer assessment of what is set, but it is still pretty loose, and schools are in almost complete control of how the assessment is carried out and marked. (The Qualifications Authority has some kind of oversight there but is gossamer light.) To get more movement in assessment results the government has now put in place a policy that allows the high stakes screw to be turned at bureaucratic will.

There are three preliminary signs of the assessment inflation in the education system: while system results have edged up, PISA results have moved down; the internal marking of NCEA work with students able to come back any number of times for teacher advice until something satisfactory is produced is now something of an open secret; and in primary, the huge jump in results prior to contributing children going to intermediate is a minor marvel, then a correction down at year 7 then a jump in year prior to secondary, though not as marvellous as the contributing school was able to manufacture. (It should be noted that if it is a full primary, this minor marvel between year 6 and 7 doesn’t happen, being delayed two years).

When you are talking about high stakes assessment in an education system, it is difficult to be fair to all schools. There is continuum of high stakes assessment in schools from unconscious mildly heroic marking irregularities and inconsistencies, to the odd touches, to the steady application of pressure on teachers and the inevitable resulting assorted practices, to the systematically organised.  With inflation being a corollary of high stakes assessment, I’m not really blaming schools – they are more victims than perpetrators, though there are some outliers (I am sent copious information from within many schools) that has principals established as system ‘heroes’ on the basis of matters referred to above.

A central concern with assessment inflation is that the inflated results mean accurate signals are not being sent within or without the system. The government was always going to exploit the internal marking NCEA Level 2 inflationary setup because it was intentionally organised for that purpose; as for primary, the government in having its policy for national testing thwarted and having to settle for standards instead found to its propagandist delight, a manipulative results’ gift had landed in its lap. An article in the Herald gives attention to government manipulation of results in public services. http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/politics/76957685/Government-agencies-inventing-numbers-to-meet-targets-says-report. Nowhere, and to such depth, to such outrageousness has this been happening than in school education.

Bill English recently responded to charges that the government was fudging figures to meet targets. If you look at the list of central targets he said were being met, anyone with a basic knowledge of current events would know that most of the targets are, indeed, being fudged, and the one for education NCEA Level 2 being fudged most of all. http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=11590938

The needs of the system are not difficult to decide: smaller classes (absolutely essential especially in the first three years); far more teacher aides throughout; more teachers for a tutor role especially for the first three years at secondary leading to NCEA; teachers and principals being returned to playing a full part in policy and decision making; national standards to go replaced by probe testing and an agency like the abolished National Education Monitoring Project (NEMP); and curriculum and school organisation variety being encouraged (which would require major changes to the mandate of the education review office). There is absolutely no chance of any of these things happening, nor of teacher organisations being motivated to campaign for these things while the true nature of what is happening in school education is obscured by fantastical government manipulation of results.

The government is becoming more and more cavalier about ways it is finding to inflate results. The cluster policy constitutes an assessment inflation machine for getting clusters to commit some schools to heroic targets, and then relying on the clusters to put those schools under notice. 

And from correspondence I’m receiving it’s all on. Principals’ groupings involved in producing plans for their clusters are being taken aback by those plans being summarily rejected by Hekia Parata and passed on to head office bureaucrats for radical change. This, even though the clusters had worked with ministry people on those plans. The bureaucrats doing the change necessarily having little knowledge of the schools, the children and, of course, none at all of the year’s cohort. Leaving aside the way this shreds the philosophy on which the clusters are ostensibly structured, it points irrevocably to the intended purpose for clusters, that is the ramping up of very high stakes assessment to ever higher levels. The plan for clusters, as this website has often pointed out, will be to set unduly high targets especially for lower decile schools and have the other schools breathing down their necks. 

This is now the New Zealand way – very, very high stakes assessment being cynically set up to ‘improve’ national standards results without having to go to the time or trouble to improve learning, indeed, the wonderment might be even greater, the improvement might well occur with learning having worsened.

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2 Responses to I’ve had enough: the truth about high stakes assessment and inflation Part 1

  1. Roger Young says:

    Kelvin’s first paragraph sums up the current situation very accurately.
    I know of one school where ERO told the principal that his writing data was too high. He went back to school changed the settings on his ETAP programme and printed out a set of lower scores. Neither he nor ERO had seen the writings lessons nor had either seen any examples of the children’s writing. This is symptomatic of what schools and MoE personnel are doing right across the country.
    The only explanation is Kelvin’s summary that out is all about control.

  2. Kelly-Ned says:

    bTerrifyingly true is all I can say.
    Cluster schools are absolutely being lead by the nose to commit to a very narrow type of target – forced to have ‘the right numbers and percentages’ included before they will be acceptable to Parata – who signs off each plan. How bizarre to have a politician sign off a plan which amounts to ‘day to day’ school management.
    My school is not in a cluster – though clusters have formed around us.
    I sat in on a meeting and was intrigued to clearly see that no-one really believed in the targets – they just want the plan signed off so they can get to the support roles and the $$$$.
    I am certain that this will come back to bite them.

    In the mean time I have been inspired by Elwyn Richardson’s re-published works and firmly believe that this type of student centred approach has infinitely more merit than any standardised hash of narrowly focused targets.

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