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National Standards: Which Children and Schools will be Hurt?

The Public Release of National Standards Data: Which Children and Schools will be Harmed Most?

Martin Thrupp
23 September 2012

Based on a presentation to the South Auckland Education Fono, Otahuhu Town Hall, 15 September 2012, updated with some comments on this weekend’s media developments. Martin Thrupp is Professor of Education at the University of Waikato.

Publicly releasing National Standards data (whether by the media or by Government) gives another dimension to the National Standards and should by now be changing the way everyone understands them. In particular, the public release of National Standards data for each school is likely to bring out many more adverse effects than National Standards would have done without this development. Some may affect high achieving children in middle class schools who for instance are likely to find school more tedious if there is a narrowing curriculum as their schools chase improvements in the published data. But National Standards when combined with public release of data are most likely to discriminate against the disabled and the poor, those who because of their background characteristics are least likely to enhance the proportion of children ‘at’ or ‘above’ Standard, the headline statistic that schools and communities will have been urged to become increasingly mindful of. Adverse effects on special needs children are likely to be felt across the socio-economic spectrum. The children from poor families will include many who are Maori or Pasifika and who are ‘English Language Learners’. They too will include many children with specific learning difficulties (around 25% of children with a disability live in benefit-dependent homes).

In what follows I provide some ideas about how these children and their schools are likely to be damaged by the release of National Standards. I look first at the appalling positioning of special schools, then at the likely plight of special needs children and children from poor families trying to access ‘higher achieving’ schools since in many ways these groups will both be in the same discriminated-against positions. (Higher- achieving is being used advisedly here because of the caveat noted below). Finally, I turn to the situation of low socio-economic schools. This supplements a previous account in which I described the release of National Standards data as disingenuous, destructive and deluded,

It is not straightforward to give an account of the likely impact of the National Standards when combined with public release of the data. Apart from the usual problems of predicting the impact of policy based on previous research evidence, there are two particular uncertainties in this case. One is the approach to publishing the data by the media in years to come. The National Standards data just released by Fairfax is comparative but it is not ranked. It is incomplete (a little under half the schools) and a searchable online database is accompanied by a mixture of frank concessions around the flawed nature of the data, for instance the admission that one school's "well below" may be another's "at" or "above", see (Actually I am confident that’s exaggerated but it will often be at least one or two levels difference on the four-point scale). The Fairfax approach also includes assertive justifications, case studies (of ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ achieving schools), ‘health warnings’, tips for choosing schools, the facility to download the data and statements from various of those opposed to the release of the data. The Herald on Sunday request to schools was later and didn’t use the Official Information Act so has fewer schools (around 600?) and there is no searchable database, nor at the time of writing does the data seem to be online. The tables are organised by deciles and regions and again there are various justifications, qualifications, tips and some shorter case studies and professional and other perspectives. The Herald also makes up for fewer schools with some wild ‘revelations’, particularly that ‘children in bigger classes and bigger schools get better grades’. On the other hand, in a section called ‘Lessons from the motherland’, deputy editor, Jonathan Milne, raises some of the same concerns discussed in this article, albeit from a perspective that is more positive about value-added testing than I ever would be.

All this and its various tensions are too much to discuss properly here and quite what messages the public and those in schools are going to take from it will be complex too (although probably not in the complex ways the journalists seem to hope for!). It also has to be seen as only the beginning since the approach of the print media will certainly change over time. With the genie now out of the bottle, it is reasonable to assume that future years will see the inclusion of fewer arguments against the data because the newspapers will feel much less need to justify what they have done. It is also reasonable to assume some kind of stronger ranking in future because so much of the ‘story’ is in the ranking. A related question is whether the newspapers will trump Government as the authoritative source of the data and this seems highly likely. Based on what we know of the Government’s intended approach on the Education Counts website, the online version of the Fairfax website will be just as searchable and allow more direct comparisons (I am ignoring the ‘context’ data in both instances as I think many readers will too). In addition the hard-copy newspaper tables will be put in front of the public annually rather than them having to look up a website. The main advantage Government has is that it will be the first to hold the ‘full set’ of data each year but there is no reason to expect that the media organisations will not continue to ‘jump the gun’ via the Official Information Act as Fairfax did this year. Indeed the Fairfax approach to all this suggests there must be much at stake in being the preferred source of the information.

A second problem is that while the discussion below mentions the ability of schools, including lower socio-economic schools, to game the system, it may well under-estimate such activity. What follows often assumes that, as happens overseas, lower socio-economic schools will generally do worse in the comparisons because of the strong links between socio-economic status and achievement. The Herald on Sunday and others who are looking at the National Standards data being currently released have already suggested this is the case with this data too. But with little policing of school processes (including those that go much wider than the intended Progress and Consistency Tool, the online platform to be used by teachers to create an OTJ from 2014), it is quite possible that some low socio-economic schools will be achieving or will begin to achieve, proportions ‘at’ or ‘above’ that are (literally) unbelievable. In this case these schools will not suffer so much from the anticipated problems discussed here, although not having a realistic account of achievement will bring its own difficulties as discussed below.

Special schools
In New Zealand there are 28 day schools and eight residential schools providing support to high needs students (see Ministry of Education website). As the Herald on Sunday has put it, ‘despite being told they would be exempt from national standards…many show a line of noughts for the numbers of pupils achieving at or above standards’. This is referring to a change of Ministry of Education policy in late 2011 that saw all students, regardless of background characteristics, having to be entered for the National Standards or Nga Whanaketanga, the Maori-medium assessment system. One example of the full horror of the National Standards data release as it positions these schools is apparent in yesterday’s Waikato Times. One of the schools published in the table of Waikato schools (p.4) was Hamilton North School, a learning centre for children with intellectual disabilities. It stood out like a sore thumb as the only special school in the table as it had 100% ‘well below’ in all categories. The Waikato Times tried to put some context around this by providing a sympathetic case study. But the case study and accompanying video clip is not in the hardcopy version of the paper which is what most people would have read, just a short quote from the principal. ''We've talked about national standards, we know they're there and we know that, due to the intellectual disability of our students, none of them are actually going to attain level one,'' [the principal] said. ''It's disappointing that we should be lumped in with all those other schools.''
Oddly, this school was included when many other Waikato schools were not because of privacy issues around their data. At first it seems to say more about the insensitive mindset of those who put the data together in Wellington but then the local video-clip accompanying the case study actually discusses how parents of the children at this school had made it clear to the school that they did not want to be told three times a year in personal reports that their children were well below standard: the school’s data still gets put in front of the public anyway. Overall, as with the approach of the newspapers more generally, there is far too much faith in qualifying commentary being able to make the publication of such data acceptable. Whether the Waikato Times approach is better or worse than the Herald’s wider but less elaborate approach to explaining this situation is not worth debating. It is indefensible and in both cases must rank as one of the lowest points in the histories of these newspapers. Nevertheless we should not be surprised if the Government data released next week reveals the same mechanical approach. It has to be asked: what possible public good has been served?

Individual children with special needs and from poor families trying to access ‘higher achieving’ schools

The logic of the release of National standards data is that ‘higher achieving’ schools (as noted, probably mostly higher socio-economic schools) or those chasing an improved position are going to often want to turn away students who are unlikely to achieve ‘at’ or ‘above’. Children who seem likely to be behind or make slow progress as they start school, those with disabilities, English as a second language, troubled backgrounds, or who have a track record of not achieving well will become a perceived liability in many schools now that the National Standards data has been released. This is because the new professionalism developing in schools will be to get as many children ‘at’ or ‘above’ in the National Standards and an easy way to do that will be to use subtle and not so subtle ways to discourage enrolment of likely low achieving children. Ways this can be done without actually breaking any laws include the extent to which schools make provision for such children, the discussions they have with prospective parents and the ways schools draw up their enrolment zones.

As for how such children will get on if they are already in or manage to access such schools, it very much ‘depends’. These schools will often be better resourced than those in lower socio-economic areas and so can put (some) extra resources behind students that are struggling. But as the ‘National Standards economy’ takes over schools, these students may not be first priority. In many schools it will depend on what makes a school look better in the overall published data. Some of the points made below about the reduced ability of low socio-economic schools to cater for their children are also relevant.

Low socio-economic schools

In considering these schools, it is important to begin by noting that the National Standards hardly allow for the extra difficulties experienced in low socio-economic and ethnically diverse schools. Teaching well in such schools takes more than high expectations and a whole lot of wishful thinking. Indeed their complexities are such that they need teachers who have additional attributes to those who teach in largely middle class areas. For instance good teachers in low socio-economic schools need to be able to use experiences, metaphors and analogies that are familiar to the worlds the children in such areas live in, so there’s a greater level of cross-cultural awareness and sensitivity required. Teachers and principals in such schools also need to be able to respond to very complex situations where students learning needs are particularly diverse because on top of other individual differences there are language issues and the effects of poverty. Realistically in low socio-economic schools, they also need to do all in this less than ideal circumstances where it can already be difficult to get the kind of staff needed, where transience is a big issue and where schools also have to deal with a lot of wider issues around families that are under pressure and do not have the financial resources and networks of those in middle class areas. It all takes a lot of energy, stamina and commitment. But the National Standards policy is largely a one-size-fits-all approach. For instance the profession development around the National Standards has been just as minimal for many low socio-economic schools as for higher socio-economic ones. The materials provided are largely mono-cultural. There are few extra people resources. Low socio-economic schools are generally being left to get on with it within existing resources despite the extraordinary demands of what they already do.

Another problem is the manner in which National Standards require teachers to make age-related judgements about disadvantaged children. The National Standards require children to be at a particular point in reading, writing and maths after a year at school and then make progress in prescribed steps in order to stay ‘at’ or ‘above’ Standard each year. But children from disadvantaged or ESOL backgrounds are likely to be behind at the outset and will often progress more slowly. The Ministry of Education recognises this but rather than allowing teachers to encourage and work with kids at their own pace, they are supposed to be ‘accelerated’ so that they catch up. However the Ministry’s approach in this area is more aspirational than realistic and there is not much in the way of advice or resources to support acceleration. It’s a recipe for both teachers and students becoming very frustrated. Frustration about ‘underachieving’ children will translate to them even if nothing is said and we know most schools will report the ‘well below’ or ‘below’ even if they don’t have to because to not use the four point scale in reporting to parents is tricky to manage, especially in big schools. And what if that happens repeatedly? My colleague Deborah Fraser has put it this way:

…there is no compelling evidence to show that regularly reporting on children’s inability to reach a target encourages them to learn. Children learn best when engaged, motivated, see purpose and meaning, and feel that magic mix of frustration, excitement, purpose, meaning, determination and elation. The National Standards system …threatens to be more punitive than educative. The same groups of low achieving children will be measured within an inch of their lives and found wanting. The same groups of children will be effectively punished by a system that is supposed to nurture every child.

A further basic issue is that there is little allowance for the extra difficulties low socio-economic schools have in making OTJs. Time is at a premium in all schools but especially in low socio-economic schools and they are going to struggle to make OTJs in the way the Ministry intends. They also tend to have a lot more transience that makes it harder to sort out the data but there is no extra time for OTJ processes.

Especially once combined with public release, National Standards will also make it harder for teachers to connect with disadvantaged children through narrowing the curriculum. While in theory the National Standards can be taught by way of the broad school curriculum, the temptation to move towards a narrower, more direct approach has been there and its now going to intensify. And that will reduce the range of options available to teachers trying to respond to the interests of children, in this case including Maori and Pasifika interests. There will be a different mindset and policies in and around a school under pressure to move lots of kids from ‘below’ to ‘at’ than in a school where most kids are likely to be ‘at’ or ‘above’. This is why in the US there is the development of a two tier system where middle class students might still receive a fairly rich curriculum while low socio-economic students and ethnic minorities get ‘a drill and kill’ basic curriculum. While we don’t have a ‘test’ to be taught to in New Zealand, some version of this is also likely to develop here under the pressure of National Standards data being released. Teachers might not want that but again it is the logic of a high stakes environment, particularly where there is target-setting and intervention in schools that are seen to be not measuring up.

Another important aspect of the curriculum is that many educators have stressed the need to essentially politicise low socio-economic and ethnic minority students so that they understand the way power can work for and against them and have less chance of being exploited (Paulo Freire is the best example). But this really requires exposure to a wide curriculum. So for instance the social studies curriculum can be an opportunity to discuss poverty and racism while environmental education could open up ideas around political activism and lobbying. There’s also the importance of learning from social and political events at the time they are actually happening. But its difficult to do any of this without giving over reasonable amounts of time to it and in this way a narrower curriculum will serve to keep the children in low socio-economic communities disempowered.

Another problem is the release of ‘raw’ data. The fact is that if National Standards come to represent any kind of reasonably accurate reflection of achievement against curriculum levels - and there does have to be doubt about that as already mentioned – then low socio-economic schools are going to be hammered in local comparisons. As it does with the NCEA, the Herald is trying to group by decile but that crude value-added comparison will just make things worse in some ways as it will make readers assume context has been taken into account when it actually hasn’t (there are many elements of school context not picked up by the decile indicator). A low position in the data will tend to discourage both teacher and student applicants for lower socio-economic schools wherever people have a choice. The comparative data will affect student expectations too as being told that your school is not up to standard does nothing for students’ identities as learners.

Finally, we can expect that the public release of national standards data will discourage low socio-economic schools (in particular) from being so transparent about the achievement problems their children are facing. We are likely to see more children being put ‘at’ or ‘above’ standard and schools becoming more insistent that the achievement is at those levels, whether or not its realistic. We have to ask whether such pressures for teachers and schools to manipulate the system will be in the best interests of genuine learning in low socio-economic schools. As I have previously noted, what everyone needs to grapple with is the paradox that the more high stakes pressure is placed on teachers, the less authentic their teaching will become and that there is no easy way to get around this problem.


The expectation of the Key Government is that through its various measures the data “will get better and better and be more useful over time”. Becoming more ‘meaningful’ is the expression often used. But of course at the same time it is creating more incentive for schools to be gaming the system. So talk of the data becoming meaningful is unrealistic, it may well become less meaningful in real terms. I reiterate that if there is no way to halt the release of data then the problem can only be fixed by removing the reporting requirements around the National Standards or, better still, getting rid of National Standards altogether and letting schools just work with the underlying curriculum levels and assessment tools. At least at that level - getting schools to think about the relationship between curriculum and assessment - there seems to have been some positives around the National Standards for some schools. But sadly, it is hard to see anything that couldn’t have been achieved in a less harmful, less disruptive and probably less expensive way through high quality, attractive, professional development.

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