'Teaching to the test' is a rocky road

6th November 2009 at 00:00
New Zealand is facing a British-style crackdown on school standards. This is how a recent editorial in the country's Herald on Sunday newspaper responded

In education matters, as any teacher will tell you, everyone's an expert. Oddly, though, this assumption of universal expertise does not extend to such fields as dentistry and automotive mechanics: no one claims their experience of chewing or driving confers specialist authority. But teachers can be sure they will never want for the advice of others.

They got some recently as Prime Minister John Key and Education Minister Anne Tolley announced new education standards for literacy and numeracy in Years 1 to 8, which will measure achievement against nationally set benchmarks.

The announcement, dotted with buzzwords like "progress", "achievement", "measure" and, indeed, "standards", was calculated to induce warm and fuzzy feelings in parents whose anxiety about their childrens' education may always be relied on as a rich source of political capital. But it took place over the furious protests of teachers and principals, whose representative organisations pointedly boycotted the launch.

Teachers have justifiably complained that the problematic exams regime at secondary level has buried them in paperwork. This rhymes with a disquiet felt more widely in education circles that there is so much assessment of learning going on that there isn't any time left for teaching. So when those charged with measuring educational achievement question the new standards, it's worth listening.

Professor John Hattie, who has won international recognition for his work on student achievement, says the government's new standards regime looks like a backwards step. Hattie's 15-year study on assessment, published last year, was described as education's "Holy Grail" in the authoritative Times Educational Supplement in Britain. He has condemned the planned changes as "going back 50 years", concerned they will force teachers to teach children according to their school year, rather than their ability.

Teachers say this process - "teaching to the test" - threatens to destroy one of the strengths of the New Zealand education system, which is teaching children according to their abilities. The government may take the view that if learning is not being assessed and quantified, it is not occurring, but anyone who has found in a teacher a lifelong source of inspiration knows better.

By an unfortunate coincidence, the standards announcement comes after a major report in the UK attacked primary schools for doing what the government here is proposing. A study led by Cambridge University, the biggest independent review of primary education in Britain in 40 years, criticised - among many other things - the narrowing of the curriculum and the impact of testing and standards on primary school children.

There is no assessment crisis here. But the unpalatable truth is that there is an achievement crisis. And under-achievement is correlated with socio-economic status, which is reliably correlated with ethnicity. This approach is like fixing a leaking tap by putting a leaking bucket under it and measuring the amount of water that's being lost.

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