This morning’s New Zealand Herald article (May 2, 1916) by Kirsty Johnston is a breakthrough in the media coverage of school education and the likelihood of public awareness of the actual level of functioning of school education. It will also lead to the revelation of a massive cover-up of education failure organised by the ministry and its enlarged media team.
This website has carried posting after posting detailing how that cover-up has been carried out and how the schools have been allowed to do it.
Radio New Zealand and the print media have carried one-off references to the symptoms of what has been occurring but with no follow-up. The decline in PISA results, as narrow as they are, have been one of those symptoms but until Kirsty Johnston came along, no-one connected the dots.
I have combined the two last articles of the series this site has been carrying on the decline of school learning as a result of government policy: the first does a whole of school overview of the problem and where it starts (at the primary school) and how the secondary school copes with so many poorly educated children who turn up on their doorstep. Signals of failing teaching are not being sent because of the manipulation of marks at both primary and secondary levels. The manipulation in primary is detailed below and more details are to be added for secondary.
Three final points before the postings speak for themselves:
- You will not hear from government apologists like Professor Stuart McNaughton the real truth of the matter, nor will you hear from me because I have been detailing the problem for too long and too loudly to be referred to, but there are many good people out there who could be consulted who have an understanding of where we were, what happened so terribly, and where we should go – I hope those people are reached. In the end, it all comes down to letting teachers having a genuine say in what happens in school education and providing the freedom for that to be expressed: unleashing the interaction of ideas from the classroom, not imposing direction from the ministry and its cronies from the top.
- Secondary teachers will say they are doing their best for children by getting them through by fair means and foul, also simply moving children to where they might succeed – but my point is that the fate of those children was decided well before they arrived at secondary: I want all children to have genuine choices when they get to secondary.
- The clusters are government organisational instruments that will make things worse.
The truth about high stakes assessment and inflation (the primary school)
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.
The truth about high stakes assessment and inflation (national standards)
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.
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 …’
‘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.