I’ve had enough: the truth about high stakes assessment and inflation Part 3 (the primary school)

There is no doubt that principals have worked out how to organise their schools to meet present system exigencies but face considerable obstruction, given the nature of that organisation, to deliver anything like a genuine curriculum.

As wonderful and glitzy as the organisation of schools and the system is – if meeting the learning needs of children is the priority, we have a curriculum-in-decline system. Serving to cover up that decline we have high stakes assessment inflation, a deceptive minister, ill-informed bureaucracies, and an inept news media.

In this posting, I am going to briefly point out how primary schools are responding to the high stakes assessment of national standards (and in the next posting how secondary schools are responding to the same with NCEA Level 2). Over a school population, high stakes assessment inflation is inevitable, so I don’t take an ethical stance towards what I describe.  My purpose is to expose as miseducative both national standards and an education system imposed from the top, kept in place by fear.

I want to make clear that not all schools are involved in national standards inflation or have the same need as some other schools to be so. And the nature, depth, and spread of principal and teacher involvement varies greatly, nor does everyone in a school have knowledge of whether it is occurring – much is very subtle and never spoken about or acknowledged.

A good bit of this is explained in the Parts below, so before you set out to haul me over the coals, please read those Parts. I think they are pretty balanced.



The following is symbolic of what happens to schools if they don’t participate in national standards inflation, especially if they are schools drawing children from lower socio-economic environments:

‘This year at school, we received professional learning support from a big company. Two women came and talked to us about modern learning environments. They invited comment and I shared with them that we had many students who were the third generation who’d had trouble reading. I was trying to show them the bigger picture of our community and to talk about how we might be able to involve families in our literacy and learning programmes.’

‘The two women were very challenging. They kept saying to me, ‘You have to examine the data.’ But what they really meant was looking at the maths and reading tests. Our room is full of data – photos, paintings, weaving, tukutuku stories, sporting, music, speech awards, as well as the data they were referring to.’

‘The women were obviously not happy with me. We will be reporting you to others, they said. When they came back next time, they brought another woman with them. She was very aggressive and started by saying exactly the same thing. ‘Now you need to examine the data’ as though it was some kind of mantra. I tried to explain again that that in itself would not be sufficient as many of our children had not had the same opportunities as others and there was a constant need to build their confidence and gain their trust. Then I mentioned the three generation thing again …’

‘This really unleashed something! The new woman poked her finger at me and said very loudly ‘Three generations!  And what do you think is the common factor here?’ Without waiting for any reply, she continued – with more finger pointing – ‘You!’

‘Not poverty, not the fact that these families sometimes give their children marijuana as a reward for being ‘good’, not family violence, ill-health, a lack of breakfast and a mum in jail …’

 ‘… Me!’

‘My face was burning up and I couldn’t speak. I thought I was going to pass out – it was like being punched in the face. Not able to stay in the room, I ran out and got into my car. I have no idea how I drove home that night.’

‘The next day I resigned. I feel as though everything I have ever believed in has been ripped out of me, everything I have ever valued about education gone. My doctor has prescribed anti-depressants.’

The way non-genuine results are produced takes a myriad of forms. In discussing the situation with teachers, they tell me the inflation occurs with little or no discussion amongst themselves. Teachers and principals on their own, in their own way, operate in response to the high stakes assessment pressures.  A principal can be adjusting marks in his or her office, or teachers can be responding in classrooms without the principal or other teachers being overtly aware of the actions of each other.

One sure and obvious sign of the fact of inflation, leaving aside the contrasting sliding PISA results, is the surge in results in the year before children move to middle school.

It is a fact as sure as a stone falls to gravity that high stakes assessment rises to inflation. It is just that national standards, compared with national testing, offers a greater variety of ways for that inflation to occur.

All right, let us settle to the task of pointing to a few of the ways in which assessment inflation is occurring. The information has been gained from, and volunteered by, teachers in a number of ways over the years.

I have listed in order how widespread I think particular practices are.

  • Heroic interpretations of children’s performances – I would say that heroic interpretations as against miserly outnumber the miserly two to one, with the heroic in action being far more heroic than the miserly miserly.
  • Something teachers euphemistically admit to as ‘teaching to the test’ is very common, but that teaching behaviour is far too direct to properly be called that: the teacher gives the children items from tests as something of a daily exercise – usually the elements are changed but the challenge stays the same, for instance, the items from a maths test might have apples changed to oranges.
  • This one in effect should probably be at the top and is a pervasively influential: that is the varying degrees of attention, display, and pressure the principal (or d-p) puts on the teachers for national standards results.
  • The principal adjusts marks in his or her office – though the role is often allocated to the d-p.
  • Whole tests or essays, or large parts of them are undertaken twice.
  • Rigging the assessment circle.
  • One of those ways is to put a lesser performer at the top as a starter, which has the effect of lifting the allocations of all the children involved.
  • As a variation of that, and a surprisingly common one, is early on in the year allocating lowly outliers to inappropriately high maths and reading groups – because the group a child is in affects the national standards allocation, this stops the outliers from dragging down overall results also providing a base for other children to do better than deserved. (Those outliers, especially in reading struggle for the year – in maths it might actually be beneficial).

The main thing about national standards is not their openness to manipulation but their effect of narrowing the curriculum, their rigidity, their perfect shaping as instruments of bureaucratic control, and their labelling of children (so much for mindset). If this manipulation was put to the minister she would condemn it and vow disciplinary action for anyone found out, but fundamentally she is utterly dependent on national standards inflation for covering up a curriculum-in-decline, thereby allowing her to get away with underfunding education, not doing anything substantial for children from lower socio-economic environments, and maintaining an authoritarian education system.

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9 Responses to I’ve had enough: the truth about high stakes assessment and inflation Part 3 (the primary school)

  1. Roger Young says:

    Unfortunately this business of blaming the teacher is quite widespread and used mainly as a diversionary tactic. The story you tell in this networkonnet is all too common. Sadly it is mostly the teachers who are trying hardest to make a difference who get targeted by people like ERO reviewers and PLD operators, none of whom have ever taught for more than five minutes. Some teachers now do very little for fear of being attacked by these blundering bureaucrats. There is also a small group of teachers bullied into creating high scores for their students, who then have to blame the teacher in the following year’s class for failing to lift the scores even higher.
    Assessment now has nothing to do with learning, it is all about accountability. Wait and see how achievement data soars when it is connected to performance pay.

  2. 111peggyb says:

    You make timely and very valid points Kelvin. I become so angry when I think how this inappropriate system is killing the love of Teaching and Learning in this country. There needs to be a revolution and teahers need to recapture the curriculum. Why do we have a profession so placid in their acceptance of policy that undermines them at ebery turn and dilutes students’ real learning?

    Temps de révolution mes amis . Où sont nos dirigeants?

  3. Bruce Hammonds says:

    National Standards sure are a dog.

    Two examples I am aware of. In one school the results for the year were more than impressive putting pressure on a new principal to compete with such inflated results. In a second example a new year 8 teachers, when deciding on current standard levels, found her results ( she is an accomplished teacher) well below the standard information she inherited. This left her in dilemma – to down grade the current years results to a realistic level, creating an issue with the previous teacher, or to go along with the deception. I am not sure how she resolved this.

    As you say National Standards are neither standard or national

  4. Kelvin says:

    Very telling Bruce. Roger makes a similar point and not forgetting the poor intermediates.

  5. Bruce Hammonds says:

    It’s a dog eat dog. world

    I know of a secondary school that informed an intermediate that their students were not up to the mark. Universities blame secondary schools. Intermediate their contributing schools. Primary schools early education centres – and I guess everybody blames parents.

    This is a systemic problem – international if you consider the pressure put on by increasingly doubtful PISA results.

    All this target setting reminds me of the saying that ‘the trouble with targets is not the ones you achieve but the ones you miss because you weren’t looking. National Standards narrow the view.

    Important things are too difficult to measure.

  6. Sue McIntosh says:

    Whatever happened to NZ being a world leader in curriculum development, innovation, teacher autonomy and genuine good practice, it was only about ten years ago? I loved that era where teachers could show their passion… I don’t have to question why I got out.

  7. Paul says:

    I attended a meeting with a well thought of education academic last week. He urged us to push back against the affects of National Standards but was quick to say that the funding they got required National Standards data be provided before they began PD! What worries me is that National Standards data which everyone knows is flawed is being used to make important decisions including for example for the allocation of Professional Development. Everyone is playing with Chinese Walls afraid to or willingly ignoring that ths data is largely useless and certainly cannot be relied upon.

  8. Kelvin says:

    Thanks Paul. The kind of Catch 22 situation you have a quick eye for. At the moment I probably am making primary people uneasy. However, how to break through? Secondary will be getting their turn in a couple of weeks. Of course NS is now embedded in clusters – brilliant.

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