Tuesday, January 9, 2018

What Will We Do Without National Standards?

The author, third from right, following certification two years after graduation.

I began teaching in 1999.  It was a later career choice in my early 30s and I was beyond excited to be able to make a career change to something I was so passionate about.  At that stage we had a series of curriculum documents which guided our practice and a wide range of assessment tools which we used to ascertain exactly where our students were achieving in relation to the curriculum levels and what their next learning steps needed to be.  I planned alongside my students and they, and I, could tell you exactly where they were in their learning and what their next steps were.  We did this for each child and reported accordingly to their parents.  Sounds a lot like what the National Government said we weren't doing and why they brought in National Standards...  Yes, there needed to be changes in some areas of reporting, particularly in the way we reported to parents.  It needed to be clearer but there were many schools who were already doing a fantastic job of this and could have been sharing their practice with others.

2007 saw the Revised National Curriculum introduced.  This was incredibly exciting and heralded a new era in learning and teaching in this country.  It was a curriculum that was held up as a world leader and there was so much promise around it.  This one document replaced the 8 other separate documents and allowed schools greater flexibility in catering for diverse learning needs within their schools and for tailoring their curriculum to meet the learning needs and interests of their own communities.  It provided relevancy.  There were also clear indicators of what a student was expected to be achieving at each level before progressing to the next.  From this it was easy to create the Learning Intentions and Success Criteria alongside the students to meet their individual learning needs and to show progress.

Southland Principals and Senior Leaders were particularly vocal in our opposition to National Standards and were often accused of therefore being a range of things from being opposed to assessment, (completely bonkers and I'll address this shortly) through to lefty unionists who were going to be opposed to this 'great initiative' just because it came from the National Government.  Please, give us more credit than that as professionals.  Our biggest concerns were around the speed of the introduction of the standards, the lack of an effective trial period and the fact that they were actually neither national, nor standard in the first place.  They were too open to individual judgment and the amount of professional learning and support needed to develop consistency to achieve any 'standardisation' was just not there no matter how many hundreds of hours went into trying to achieve this.

Of course, this was a really serious situation that the media ran with and, unfortunately had the ultimate impact on the public that teachers weren't interested in knowing where their students were academically and weren't interested in using these 'amazing new tools' to help them do so.  Hmmm, just what were we doing before National Standards then, when New Zealand was seen to be  a world leader in education?

Since their introduction in 2010, National Standards have given parents a false sense of security.  Parents / caregivers and whanau are under the belief that the standards provided an accurate and consistent picture of achievement across the country when this is not the case and has been backed up by research by the previous government itself.  The standards never focused on progress of the individual student.  This was one of the biggest mistakes in my opinion.  They could have been more successful had they done this.  Parents, caregivers and whanau can be reassured that you will know where your child is achieving in relation to the National Curriculum levels and what they need to do to keep progressing.

The stress and anxiety placed on students from an incredibly young age to achieve to a certain level rather than on progress is of huge concern.  I can remember when we used to have to work really hard because our Intermediate-aged students would start to become stressed and switch off school due to the number of assessments.  We were now starting to see this at a much younger age because of all the constant testing.   Do we really want this for our children?  Does it make them more successful learners?  Recent data around National Standards suggested it didn't and helped to speed up their demise.  National Standards have not improved learning and achievement.  

Another interesting area for me in particular, as my PhD is around Gifted and Talented Education, is that we were required to report our National Standards results to the Government each year in the following areas:  Students who were Well Below, Below, At and Above.  Notice anything missing?  Where are those who are 'Well Above'?  Do we not worry about them?  I've always been curious about that. 

Now that National Standards have been removed, we can now hopefully get back to putting the passion back into learning and teaching for all involved - students, teachers, Principals and caregivers and whanau.  We can now get back to utilising a curriculum which gives scope for schools to really engage with their students and communities and get learning and teaching back on track.  As for assessment?  We have such a huge range of amazing tools with which to gauge progress and identify the next learning steps for each student.  Just as we did before National Standards were put in place and put unnecessary stress and pressure on all involved.

We've had to battle for a long time against the irony from the 'powers that be' that we must be personalising the learning for our students but then assess with tests which were very much standardised, or tried to be.  The data that was recorded wasn't designed to show progress, just a score.  It was demoralising for all concerned.  Finally, we can get on with what we do best...learning and teaching, rather than constant testing and formal assessment.

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