View from here - 'Teaching to the test' is a rocky road

13th November 2009 at 00:00
New Zealand is facing a 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. Teachers can be sure that 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 as it was with buzzwords such as "progress", "achievement", "measure" and, indeed, "standards", was calculated to induce warm and fuzzy feelings in parents, whose anxiety about their children's education may always be relied upon as a rich source of political capital. But furious teachers and principals pointedly boycotted the public 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 for teaching. So when those charged with measuring educational achievement question new standards, it's worth listening.

John Hattie, who 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" and expressed concern that they will force teachers to teach children according to their school year, rather than their ability.

Teachers say that this process - "teaching to the test" - threatens to destroy one of the great 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.

There is no assessment crisis here. But the unpalatable truth is that there is an achievement crisis. And underachievement 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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