Why National Standards aren’t standard

So with all the recent brouhaha over National Standards, and the expected release of the Ministry of Education’s data tomorrow, I thought this would be the opportune time to shed some light on the process of determining a student’s achievement in relation to the standards, and show why the standards can’t be used to make comparisons across schools…in fact, comparisons between classes within a school can be difficult. The process I describe is one that I made up myself because there is no set process. Each teacher will have their own, reflecting their own professional judgement and the expectations of the school they work in. Each teacher will be using some of the same assessment tools used nation-wide, assessments which existed before the implementation of National Standards, and add their own assessment of work unique to their class.

National Standards for the end of Year 7

The first thing any teacher has had to do is work out what the standards actually are. They’re pretty vague and definitely open to interpretation. There’s no checklist you can just go through. They roughly equate to curriculum levels 1-4 (Level 1=years 1/2, level 2=years 3/4, level 3=years 5/6, level 4=years 7/8) so you have to go back and forward between the curriculum and the standards until you can hold some sort of construct in your head as to what the standard might look like in your students’ work. (I expect this will get easier over time as long as you keep on teaching the same age group.) This is a lot more straightforward at Years 1 and 2 than it is at Years 7 and 8 when kids are expected to be able to do a wide range of things in every subject. The odd-numbered years are particularly difficult to assess as the standard is somewhere in the middle of a curriculum level but it’s not always clear where the middle might be. It is particularly difficult in writing where kids are actually creating something new and, as all writers know, judging the quality of a piece of writing is highly subjective. And it’s even more difficult halfway through the year when you have only covered a few aspects (eg. number and measurement but not geometry or statistics in maths) and have to extrapolate the data you don’t have.

Level 4 Achievement Objectives for Speaking, Writing and Presenting

So, once you have the concept of the standard in your head the next step is to analyse each individual student’s work. Some of this is pretty easy as there are already assessment tools which were providing teachers with this data. What I do is make up three spreadsheets – for reading, writing and maths. Most schools have a list of set tests and examples of students’ work (eg. two narratives, two reports etc) to be used across the year level but as different classes do different work it’s definitely not a standard measurement. (Every school will have some of the same tests, tests which already collect data nationally and are compulsory) I then pop my assessment of whether each piece of work is Well Below, Below, At, or Above the standard into the spreadsheet and then average them out. Except that I don’t. Each example of a student’s work cannot simply be put into one of these categories unless it is a standardised test. Most require me to make a judgement on where it generally sits and make a note if some aspects of the work don’t quite fit eg. an excellent use of simile in an incoherent text, or a lack of paragraphs in an otherwise great story. I then weigh up whether these exceptions are significant or not.

I also use my own judgment to give different weight to different tests and pieces of work. Say, for example, I have a student whose writing is above the standard but their spelling and punctuation is well below. A mathematical average won’t be a true reflection of their ability – especially as it will be dependent on how many tests and pieces of work are included in the assessment. But then neither will any of the options given to me under the National Standards. They are not Above, At or Below the standard. They are all of these. I’ll weigh up the things they can and can’t do and make some sort of balance in my head. The standard I end up giving them will be based on my knowledge of them as a learner ie. are they the sort of person who will see a lower than expected result as a challenge and rise to it or will they collapse in a puddle of tears and give up? Basically, I assess how the result will affect their future learning and mark accordingly. I know that there are always kids who will slack off for the rest of the year if I tell them they’re already at or above the standard at the end of Term 2…who would that help? If I felt pressure from the school or society, and felt that my job was at risk, I am sure that my own self-interest would then become a consideration. It hasn’t so far but I can see it coming.

Most of the students I have had have been working near the standard and the process above is what I use for them. However, there are other students for whom assessment against the standard has been extremely easy. These are the ones in the Well Below and Above categories – the ‘tails’ at either end. I know what the result is going to be before I enter their data into my spreadsheet. They are not operating near the standard at all. It takes a matter of seconds to assess them yet this is all the Ministry requires. There is no point telling these students and their families how they measure up against this standard. They need to know how they’re doing in relation to the actual curriculum level they’re working at. A kid who’s still figuring out how to use a ruler in Year 7 doesn’t need to be told that they can’t use ‘effective mental multiplicative strategies’. Everyone already knows that. They do need to know what they can do, what they got better at during the year and what they can do next to get even better. If they’re almost at the standard in geometry but still can’t figure out place value then that’s what I want to tell their families…and give them suggestions for how to use geometry to help them get numbers. A kid who’s studying NCEA maths in Year 8 (as some are) doesn’t benefit from knowing they can identify a prism. They could do that when they were 8. They also need to know how they’re improving and what they should work on next. It’s also important to let them know that maybe they were writing at a Year 11 level halfway through the year but now they’ve dropped to a Year 9 level. If I only have to say that they’re above the standard then no one will know they’re doing worse (but I’ll still look good…yay). Good teachers will report on this to the student and their family but there is no requirement from the Ministry to do so. Actually assessing this sort of data on a national level would be a massive undertaking and I ‘m unsure whether it would serve much purpose.

I’ve enjoyed the process of assessing for National Standards and have found that analysing my kids’ work like this – being allowed the time to do so – has helped me identify specific needs for individual students. It’s labelling this analysis as Well Below, Below, At and Above the standard that I have trouble with. It’s not truthful and it doesn’t help anyone learn. I’ll use my analysis to set challenging goals for students; to get them to set goals for themselves. Goals that they can reach if they work for it. The National Standards are too often goals that are either out of reach or already surpassed. If National Standards become the goals kids aim for, learning will become meaningless for many. I want my students to measure themselves against their own standards; to constantly want to improve; to see that they are doing better this week than last week and know why; to see that they are doing worse this week than last week, know why and what to do about it; to love to learn and continue doing so throughout their lives. This is what I expect of adults. It is certainly what I expect of myself. Why doesn’t the government expect it of our kids?


One thought on “Why National Standards aren’t standard

  1. This is the clearest explanation of what national standards means ‘on the ground’ that I, a childless non-NCEA schooled adult, has come across. I wonder, does the answer lie in modifying the national standards system, or should it be thrown out altogether?

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