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100 education academics sign letter against league tables

[Attached briefing note below]

Over 100 education academics have signed a letter against primary school league tables based on National Standards

We are a group of New Zealand academics teaching and researching in universities. As a group we are very concerned about the proposed publication of ‘league tables’ of primary school performance based on National Standards, whether compiled by media organisations or by Government. We believe that National Standards achievement data and the available school and student level contextualising data are so clearly unsuitable for the purpose of comparing school performance that to purport to do so would be dishonest and irresponsible. We also believe, based on the experience of other countries, that the publication of league tables will be extremely damaging for New Zealand primary education. As academics we will condemn and disregard any published league table of primary school performance and we urge the New Zealand public to do likewise.

Current Signatories (names will continue to be added)

Emeritus Professor Raymond Adams, Massey University

Dr Vivienne Anderson, University of Otago

Judy Bailey, University of Waikato

Associate Professor Miles Barker, University of Waikato

Dr Roseanna Bourke, Victoria University of Wellington

Dr Jenny Boyack, Massey University

Professor Christopher Branson, University of Waikato

Trish Brooking, University of Otago

Associate Professor Gavin Brown, University of Auckland

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Dr Mike Brown, University of Waikato

Dr Seth Brown, Massey University

Tracey Carlyon, University of Waikato

Dr Vicki Carpenter, University of Auckland

Professor James Chapman, Massey University

Sue Cheesman, University of Waikato

Jeanette Clarkin-Phillips, University of Waikato

Tracey-Lynne Cody, Massey University

Associate Professor Lindsey Conner, University of Canterbury

Dr Marian Court, Massey University

Dr Hamish Crocket, University of Waikato

Associate Professor Kathie Crocket, University of Waikato

Professor Niki Davis, University of Canterbury

Associate Professor Nesta Devine, AUT University

Dr Vijaya Dharan, Victoria University of Wellington

Dr Helen Dixon, University of Auckland

Judy Duncan, University of Auckland

Emeritus Professor Warwick Elley, University of Canterbury

Fiona Ellis, University of Otago

Dr Brian Finch, Massey University

Dr Katie Fitzpatrick, University of Auckland

Lester Flockton, University of Otago

Dr Margaret Franken, University of Waikato

Dr John Freeman-Moir, University of Canterbury

Associate Professor Alison Gilmore, University of Otago

Dr Barrie Gordon, Victoria University of Wellington

Dr Alexandra Gunn, University of Otago

Maggie Haggerty, Victoria University of Wellington

Tamsin Hanly, University of Auckland

Paul Hansen, Massey University

Dr Sally Hansen, Massey University

Emeritus Professor Richard Harker, Massey University

Dr Penny Haworth, Massey University

Michelle Hesketh, University of Auckland

Paul Heyward, University of Auckland

Associate Professor Mary Hill, University of Auckland

Robert Hoeberigs, University of Auckland

Jodie Hunter, Massey University

Philippa Hunter, University of Waikato

Dr Michael Irwin, Massey University

Jayne Jackson, Massey University

Andrew Jamieson, Massey University

Dr Joce Jesson, University of Auckland

Professor Alison Jones, University of Auckland

Dr Alison Kearney, Massey University

Janette Kelly, University of Waikato

Dr Joanna Kidman, Victoria University of Wellington

Ken Kilpin, Massey University

Judine Ladbrook, University of Auckland

Dr Darrell Latham, University of Otago

Dr Deidre Le Fevre, University of Auckland

Dr Frances Langdon, University of Auckland

Debora Lee, University of Auckland

Associate Professor Kathleen Liberty, University of Canterbury

Dr Kirsten Locke, University of Auckland

Professor Terry Locke, University of Waikato

Dr Judith Loveridge, Victoria University of Wellington

Dr Jude MacArthur, Massey University

Dr Sasha Matthewman, University of Auckland

Professor Helen May, University of Otago

Professor Stephen May, University of Auckland

John McCaffery, University of Auckland

Dr Alyson McGee, Massey University

Dr Mandia Mentis, Massey University

Frauke Meyer, University of Auckland

Louise Milne, University of Waikato

Professor Linda Mitchell, University of Waikato

Associate Professor Missy Morton, University of Canterbury

Associate Professor Carol Mutch, University of Auckland

Dr Karen Nairn, University of Otago

Wendy Neilson, University of Waikato

Associate Professor Peter O’Connor, University of Auckland

Anne-Marie O’Neill, Massey University

Professor John O’Neill, Massey University

Dr Kirsten Petrie, University of Waikato

Dr Peter Rawlins, Massey University

Dr Karen Rhodes, Massey University

Associate Professor Tracy Riley, Massey University

Professor Peter Roberts, University of Canterbury

Nigel Robertson, University of Waikato

Dr Susan Sandretto, University of Otago

Alan Scott, University of Canterbury

Cathy Short, University of Waikato

Associate Professor Mary Simpson, University of Otago

Anne Sinclair, University of Auckland

Dr David Small, University of Canterbury

Jill Stephenson, University of Auckland

Gary Tenbeth, University of Auckland

Dr Kate Thornton, Victoria University of Wellington

Professor Martin Thrupp, University of Waikato

Dr Trevor Thwaites, University of Auckland

Lynley Tulloch, University of Waikato

Distinguished Professor William Tunmer, Massey University

Dr Bill Ussher, University of Waikato

Dr Jannie van Hees, University of Auckland

Professor Margaret Walshaw, Massey University

Dr Kama Weir, Massey University

Dr Bronwyn Wood, Victoria University of Wellington

A further briefing note is attached.




There are currently 107 signatories to this letter drawn from across the New Zealand universities that teach and research in education. Nearly a third are professors or associate professors. We will continue to gather signatories from university academics and will also invite signatories from staff in polytechnics and wananga who are teaching and researching in education.


1. National Standards data are unsuitable for comparing schools.

2. The contextualising data are incomplete.

3. League tables are educationally harmful.

4. The political argument for league tables is weak.

1. National Standards data are unsuitable for comparing schools The performance of schools cannot meaningfully be compared with each other unless it can be demonstrated that assessment measures, processes and moderation have been used consistently across schools. National Standards (NS) are not nationally moderated and rely on processes and teacher judgments that will certainly be inconsistent across schools.

The first year report of the RAINS research [] led by Professor Martin Thrupp illustrates very different pathways into NS enactment in six case study schools. There is likely to be much greater variation over the 2,300 primary and intermediate schools nation– wide. The Ministry of Education is developing a ‘Progress and Consistency Tool’ that is intended over time to reduce variation of ‘overall teacher judgment’ between schools.

However, the tool cannot control variation in the processes used prior to entering the data online, nor the more subjective elements allowed for within the tool.

Many schools that are providing NS data to the Ministry include explanatory comments or withhold data related to particular sub-groups of students because the numbers are small and the children may be identifiable. Almost half of New Zealand primary schools have fewer than one hundred and fifty students, which means that a school’s reported NS achievement performance is likely to fluctuate widely from year to year for reasons that are entirely beyond the control of the school and its teachers. These important qualifications and caveats will not appear in league tables as they cannot reflect school level details.

National Standards measure numeracy and literacy achievement only. These are only part of the primary school curriculum and only a fraction of the knowledge, skills and attitudes that children learn at school.

2. The contextualising data are incomplete

Many elements of the school’s local community context affect teaching and learning processes and children’s achievement. These include socio-economic and other intake differences (such as ethnicity, student transience rates, the proportion of English language learners or children with special needs) and other school and area characteristics (local labour market, urban/rural location, popularity compared to surrounding schools).

There are also internal school contexts, such as past leadership or reputational issues, significant staffing changes or schools being damaged. In addition, certain student level contextual data (e.g. prior attainment, disposition to schooling and family support) are essential if comparisons of school performance are to be fair.

Overall it is very difficult to take full account of school contexts in a way that allows schools to be compared with each other fairly. The proxies used for community, school and student context in value-added analyses are simply not adequate to permit meaningful judgments about a school’s performance.

Many attempts at comparing school performance do not even try to use the best available statistical methodologies. New Zealand does not collect the necessary individual student and family level data. Instead the school decile rating is typically used as a proxy for all these contextual indicators. Yet there may be enormous differences between the contexts 3 of schools within deciles making decile rating completely inappropriate for contextualising school performance.

3. League tables are educationally harmful

The compilation and release of achievement data in league tables to enable comparison of schools has the potential to cause harm: to learners, teachers, schools and local communities.

We know from international experience of system-wide assessments that encouraging public comparisons of school performance leads directly and indirectly to behaviours that harm the education of the very groups of students that governments say they want to help.

These harmful behaviours include: ‘teaching to the test’ and ‘narrowing of the curriculum’; valuing of some students over others because of their ability to perform and to conform; prioritising the teaching and other support given to some students over others in order to maximize the numbers that ‘reach the standard’; and damaging effects on students’ anxiety levels and conceptions of themselves as learners – ‘I’ll be below standard’.

4. The political argument for league tables is weak

The argument that the Ministry of Education should release league tables in order to prevent the media doing so, does not address the problems that their effects will be damaging and the data used to compile the tables will be incomplete. Data release in league table form will consequently misinform rather than inform parent and community judgments about how well children are learning.

We do not know of any reliable research evidence that supports the government’s assertion that parents in New Zealand are ‘desperate’ for the release of league tables in order to be able to better judge the quality of their child’s school. In any event, parents already have other sources of information and methods available to make judgments about the quality of their child’s school and its provision for learning. There is no obvious information ‘gap’ that league tables would fill.

National Standards data are also said to be ‘official information’ and automatically subject to release to the media on request under the provisions of the Official Information Act (OIA). Consequently, it is claimed to be ‘in the public interest’ for NS league tables to be compiled and released. But, the public’s interests are diverse and often conflicting. Even if it could be demonstrated that a majority of the public supports league tables, the potential 4 benefits of release need to be weighed against the potential harms that ‘league tables’ may cause.

In particular, the moral principle of social justice demands that the situation of the most disadvantaged in our society should not be made worse through the release of official information. The intention of Section 9 of the OIA is clearly that a state organisation may only responsibly release official information when it can demonstrate that the potential for harm has been fully identified, assessed and mitigated.

Recently, the Australian Curriculum and Assessment Authority’s (ACRA) ‘My School’ website has been cited by the Minister of Education as an example of a responsible approach to compilation and release of achievement information, and one that the New Zealand Ministry of Education may seek to emulate.

However, My School does not compile or release league tables. Indeed, the My School website Terms of Use specifically prohibit the compilation of league tables for commercial gain, and the public use of information extracted from the website in misleading ways. Prospective users are required to acknowledge that national assessment program data (NAPLAN) from limited national tests of literacy and numeracy are only one source of information, and that other ‘statistical and contextual’ school information (on the site and from the school itself) needs to be collated and interpreted by the user in order to gain a more complete and truthful picture of the quality of the school. The My School site and its Terms of Use are together designed to minimise the possibility of harm caused by simplistic, incomplete or ill-informed comparisons of school performance. Even so, well-informed critics of the ACRA system have identified gaps and flaws that have the potential to lead to harm to learners.

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