21 April, 2011

National Standards - can we just get on with it!

I do think it is a pity when intelligent people sit down to measure droplets of rain in order to establish the optimum size so they can distinguish between heavy rain and mere showers – wet is wet.

I don’t have a problem with anyone debating National Standards. However there are some simple facts of life that are more important than criticising their introduction.

1. The concept of a standard that is fixed has a lot of appeal – we could spend hours discussing the method of implementation. If you ask most parents they want to know how well their child is doing compared with . . .

2. The issue therefore is what do we compare student achievement with in order to know how they are doing. Up until now we have generally been comparing against “the national norm”. This is the normalized achievement level (effectively an average) of all the students across the country. It’s not a precise number, it falls within a band. Children have always been described as above, at or below the national norm. Clearly half of them are at or above while half of them are at or below – that’s the nature of averages.

3. Is this adequate? Well it’s OK, it has been OK for many years. However is the national norm good enough? In the world we now live in where the majority of the unskilled (and many of the skilled) jobs are going off shore, should we not be looking to push achievement a little higher? There cannot be too many parents who would say no.

4. Rightly or wrongly the inventors of the National Standards took as a goal the endpoint of NCEA Level 2 and then worked back from there to establish a level of achievement which, if students were able to maintain that level throughout their primary years they would have a good chance of getting Level 2 in Year 12. Students at the national norm throughout their school career have less chance of doing this.

5. Will we get every student up to the National Standards? No, of course not – but then we could not get some up to the national norms either. Did that mean we stopped trying? Of course not. So why would we stop trying now and just settle for the national norm?

6. What do parents want to know? They want to know how their child is doing against some measure. We need therefore to describe the child as being at, above or below something. We have traditionally used the national norm. Half the children were always going to above this so what did it tell their parents? It could have told them that the child was OK and that they need do nothing more. This may have resulted in them being of average achievement but falling short at NCEA and then the parents asking what had happened. For the half that fell below the norm at least we were able to tell parents that their child needed more work or help. Has that changed – I hope not.

7. What is even more important, regardless of the level of achievement is the question “how is my child progressing?” The real question is whether they are making progress. Even for students who are below the standard (or even below the norm) we need to know if they are at least progressing – or falling further behind.

So what are the criticisms of National Standards
•  " Some are set too high." Well so are many goals in life. The high jump on the school athletics day is too high for some. Should we give up then and make it at a level that half the kids can jump it? The higher performing children will get bored and go on to something else when they might have been able to become great athletes.
•  " We have to tell parents that their children have failed to get over the bar." Parents expect to know how their child is doing (use whatever language that suits you) and then they want to know how to help get them higher. It’s pretty obvious if the parent is at the athletics day. They are no doubt going to encourage their child to do better, not become upset that they failed.

What about the question of language used to describe the child’s level of achievement. Much has been written about the use of the term “failure”. The critics have made this up.

NAG 2A says that the school is required to “report to students and their parents on the student’s progress and achievement in relation to National Standards” – no mention of the words to be used.

The facilitator notes for the Ministry’s board training for the board’s role in National Standards includes the comment “. . . there is no requirement for schools to use ‘at, above, below, well below” in their reports – again no mention of failure. Perhaps those that advocate the use of the word failure are bereft of any skill with the English language. They are certainly bereft of a commitment to inform parents about their child’s performance and how this can be addressed.

As to what we do now? Well my personal view is to ignore NZEI and their exhortations to join some sort of revolution – no good will come of it, there will only be tears. Maybe under pressure the Government may change aspects of the National Standards to try to address the criticism. However that will happen outside our small corner of the world.

I would prefer to see our school (every school) spend their precious time on focusing on student achievement. I am sure we can find a way of helping parents to understand how their child is doing, and more importantly how their child can do better – whether they are above or below a standard.