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(RAINS) Final Report: National Standards and the Damage Done

Research, Analysis and Insight into National Standards (RAINS) Project

Final Report: National Standards and the Damage Done

Martin Thrupp & Michelle White November 2013

Report commissioned by The New Zealand Educational Institute Te Riu Roa (NZEI)

OVERVIEW OF THIS REPORT 1. This is the final report of the Research Analysis and Insight into National Standards (RAINS) project, a three-year study of the enactment of the National Standards policy in six diverse primary and intermediate schools.

2. The report provides an overview discussion of the pros and cons of the National Standards policy as experienced by staff, children and parents in the RAINS schools. It summarises the policy and methodological background to the research and the findings of the two previous RAINS reports.

The report is also being accompanied by online case studies and other data files.

3. Although the RAINS schools’ trajectories have been very different, they are converging towards the National Standards agenda, whether the schools were early adopters, have come to the Standards over time, or have been forced to engage because of intervention from the Ministry or ERO. One school has managed to get by with a more tepid response but this positioning remains vulnerable.

4. The report considers why those in the RAINS schools, many of them sceptical or dismissive of the Government’s National Standards agenda at the outset, have mostly come around to engaging with the Standards with more effort and attention. Reasons for falling in line with the National Standards include professional identities, pressure from central agencies, and incrementalism.

There has been little evidence so far of market pressures related to the public release of data.

5. National Standards are having some favourable impacts in areas that include teacher understanding of curriculum levels, motivation of some teachers and children and some improved targeting of interventions. Nevertheless such gains are overshadowed by damage being done through the intensification of staff workloads, curriculum narrowing and the reinforcement of a two-tier curriculum, the positioning and labelling of children and unproductive new tensions amongst school staff. These problems are often occurring despite attempts by schools and teachers to minimise any damaging impact of the National Standards.

6. The children in the RAINS schools interviewed for the project were largely indifferent to, or supportive of, the National Standards. There were some comments that give cause for concern and the interviews were also revealing of processes of peer comparison. Further analysis is required to properly unpack the children’s perspectives.

7. Interviews with parents illustrated that whether National Standards were seen as a good idea or not depended very much on the experiences and perspectives of particular families and particular children. Parents could often see some value in a system that allowed people to know where their child ‘sat’ nationally, but the National Standards categories are broad and when it came to their own child they wanted both a more detailed and a more rounded view including progress, attitude and socialisation. Parents tended to trust schools to know what they were doing and were clearly not very interested in how the National Standards judgements came about. Some parents chose not to share school reports with their child because of the National Standards judgements.

8. ERO teams that undertook reviews in the RAINS schools during the course of the project expressed some respect for the stances of those who opposed the National Standards. Nevertheless the politics of their role was to support government policy rather than question it or support a token reading of it. This meant reviewers could not acknowledge potential problems within the National Standards system. Review teams were more sympathetic to some RAINS schools than others and struggled with how much to acknowledge the impact of school context.

9. Evidence that the National Standards are damaging schools needs to be taken seriously because it has surfaced while New Zealand’s version of high-stakes assessment is still in an embryonic stage.

National Standards are not going to avoid the problems found internationally; they represent a variation on the theme.

Research, Analysis and Insight into National Standards (RAINS) Project: Final Report: National Standards and the Damage Done Page ii 10. Recommendations include changing teachers expectations of progression through the curriculum levels to be in line with national norms; abandoning the four-point National Standards scale and instead reporting whichever underlying curriculum level a child has reached; leaving it up to schools as to how they determine student achievement against curriculum levels while informing their decisions through high-quality professional development; removing the reporting of primary achievement to the Ministry and the public; gathering system-wide information through a national sampling approach; and continuing with ERO reviews but with different policy informing review teams’ practices.

11. The challenge for the public around the National Standards agenda is the same as across the public sector: to avoid being seduced by the tidy rows of figures in national indicators and to be more searching about what might actually lie beneath them. Unfair criticism of the New Zealand school system should be avoided and more attention given to reducing socio-economic inequalities between schools.

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