There may be those who question why I should be raising such an uncomfortable subject. My answer is that without confronting high stakes assessment (of the sort pertaining) nothing will change in New Zealand school education: teachers and principals will continue to be impeded, and children, especially from lower socio-economic families, will continue to be short-changed. The children from better-off families usually have enough social capital to recover as they go through the education system; children from poorer families often don’t. However, all children would benefit from smaller classes, more teacher support staff, more teachers available as tutors in the early secondary years, an education system that encourages imagination and flexibility of thinking, and one that releases teachers sufficiently from centralised control to allow variety of approach. There is, however, no impetus for change because the results from high stakes assessment are masking an education system in decline and wrong directions being taken.
The government has declared the Level 2 NCEA to be the key indicator of the degree of success of the New Zealand education system. It has also approved a system in which the testing and marking for that level, in particular, is largely left to the schools. This very high stakes assessment at Level 2 NCEA has implications for the school system right down to the first year at primary. The success by high stakes assessment (of the sort pertaining) at Level 2 NCEA means no signal is being sent throughout the school system that when children arrive at secondary they are arriving considerably unprepared for that level of schooling. In return, there is also very high stakes assessment in the primary system which means no signal about unsatisfactory performance, even if of only the unsatisfactory national standards variety, is being emitted. At NCEA Level 2, the high stakes effect is revealed in a marking rort and the diversion of children to peripheral units. The rest of secondary school marking is exemplary; but the part that isn’t, NCEA Level 2, is pivotal to the education system, which is why it has been subject to very high stakes assessment (of the sort pertaining).
The story of high stakes assessment, however, needs to be traced back to primary school, where the government has imposed an education system to serve its ideological and fiscal purposes. When these children arrive at secondary, many, especially those from lower socio-economic environments, have little chance of meeting the demands of an authentic NCEA Level 2, so an unauthentic one is provided instead. The lack of preparation for secondary education is most seriously demonstrated in children’s lack of genuine interest in learning and a lack of development in intellectual challenge and flexible thinking. (As well, there is a growing number of children who can read but aren’t readers – not readers because of the explosion of phonics teaching in early primary.)
The answer to why primary schools are moving so many children on to secondary unprepared for genuine learning is complex but can with some degree of comprehensiveness and clarity be reduced to three main characteristics:
- First, education has been organised to a narrow version of reading, writing, and mathematics, and narrowed even further by the high stakes national standards measurement education. Undertaking a curriculum activity for measurement is not one of first teaching that curriculum activity then measuring it – it is to change substantially that curriculum activity both prior to the teaching and during it. Those who support national standards cannot have it both ways: when an area of children’s learning is measured in a national high stakes environment, what children learn is not learning occurring, then being measured, it is learning being changed for the measurement – and always for the worse.
- Second, there is a lack of intellectual challenge and flexible thinking occurring in contexts combining the affective interacting with the cognitive. This kind of intellectual challenge should occur from children’s first year at primary school, and not, as is widely held, to be delayed until children get to a certain level of functioning in the 3Rs.
- Third, the degree of high stakes assessment in primary and secondary schools (of the sort pertaining) means insufficiently clear signals are being communicated as to what is working and what is not. On the surface, except for the occasional cold-water dousing of PISA results, and Listener articles detailing eye-watering NCEA Level 2 irregularities, all the curriculum and system changes made by the government and privatised services have been fabulous successes. But below the surface, that ‘success’, as this posting argues, has come from the setting up of high stakes situations (of the sort pertaining). This process is now at the heart of the government’s education policies. Without it, the present minister of education would be out on her neck, and we would be having a very different discussion.
There is tragedy and pity in all this: a tragedy in that a signal is not being communicated about the need for a system change of direction; and a pity in that it is obscuring the few genuine government contracted successes, for instance, the Biddulphs’ Reading Together programme, and the Hunters’ (mother and daughter) problem-solving maths for young Maori and Pasifika children. But then, what motivation is there for the government to improve teaching by improving it, when it can ‘improve’ it by organising for ‘success’ based on high stakes assessment, with absolutely no risk of failure, and saving itself the trouble and money in the process – as well, be spared the embarrassment, in instances like the Biddulphs and the Hunters – of having to acknowledge the success as coming from teachers? The government, it seems, has a pathological attitude to teacher-originated programmes: it really only likes programmes that are seen to emanate from its ideology. I suspect it is only a matter of time before the problem-solving in maths programme referred to above is replaced by a formalistic numbers one; and the Biddulph book-based one, by a phonics-heavy approach. In these circumstances, whether the change harms learning or not is of little consequence as it will all come out a ‘success’ in the national standards wash.
I acknowledge that one of the main reasons secondary teachers don’t want to change the NCEA Level 2 situation is their understandable feeling for social justice – wanting a broad range of children to leave secondary with accreditation. They point to how much it means to some children and how substantial failure for a large number of children would be a return to the old exam days which made school certificate such a harsh exercise in social and vocational sorting. The idealism is admirable but misplaced. One of the functions of schools, whether schools like it or not, whether idealists like me like it or not, is social and vocational sorting. However, the whole system should be geared, right from primary, to give all children a better chance and a wider variety of choice when that sorting occurs. As well, the basis for the sorting must be fair, transparent, authentic, and inclusive. And as part of that, there being some kind of official accreditation for every child who demonstrates a satisfactory range of qualities.
More on this in the final posting.