National Standards

What happens if you are below standard?

An opinion piece written by Emeritus Professor Keith Ballard, University of Otago College of Education.

National Standards will compare children against what is said to be the 'standard' level of achievement expected for their age and time at school. In this comparison children are rated as at or as above or below the standard in reading, writing and maths. This may have some value for a teacher who understands the developmental and social context of the child's present achievements and has plans to support the child's ongoing learning. In this approach the teacher could report on a child's progress rather than on how close to the 'normal', or not normal, the child seems at any one time.

However, the emphasis in setting up National Standards has been on identifying children (and teachers) who are 'failing'. Taking this approach means that some children will be labelled, perhaps repeatedly, as failing if they do not reach the standard, if they do not appear 'normal' on the Plunket type school report that is part of the Standards. Some children with disabilities are likely to experience this repeated statement of failure.

The Minister has said that New Zealand Standards are not like those used overseas (where 'standards' have created serious problems) because elsewhere they involve tests and here we are using a range of assessment strategies. However, this difference is relatively minor and our Standards model is essentially similar to those in other countries. Also, the Plunket type report presents our standards as a single 'score' which, when repeatedly recorded as 'below expected standard', may be seen as indicating what to expect of a child, much like the discredited IQ score that has harmed many disabled children.

The stated intention of the Standards is to identify and then help the child who is failing. An expert in assessment and learning, Emeritus Profesor Terry Crooks, has noted that if we take a bottom 10% as the 'failing' group the amount of money set aside to provide additional help is around $700 per child, enough for two to three days of specialist teaching.

In any case, it seems likely that many children with disabilities may be excluded from the Standards regime. Teachers will not want to include children whose failure will be seen as indicating teacher failure. Schools will not want to include children who may lower the school's overall National Standards score and so risk their league table rating. From these points alone we can see the Standards as creating tension in education with the high stakes involved providing justification for identifying children who are best left out of the system.

A back-to-basics focus on reading, writing and maths is part of the Standards approach. This will limit the curriculum for all children but this is especially likely for those deemed to be failing. They could be assigned to the kind of repetitive and deeply boring curriculum typically seen in special education settings where particular skills are thought to be necessary before involvement in the wider world of learning which, as a result, many children will never experience. They are excluded by such practises. National Standards seem likely to be a further mechanism that sustains a focus on difference and a separating out of those deemed not up to standard.

March 2010