In a sea of alarming international education reports, the New Zealand Initiative is calling for a return of national standardised testing and mandatory reporting, Laura Walters reports

The New Zealand Initiative says the education system needs a stronger reliance on data and standardised testing if the country is going to claw its way back from concerning achievement trends and growing inequity.

National Standards was one of the first things to go when the Labour-led Government took office in 2017, followed closely by partnership schools.

Now right-of-centre think-tank the New Zealand Initiative is calling for a reinstatement of both policies in a new report, New Zealand’s Education Delusion: how bad ideas ruined a once world-leading school system.

This election campaign has seen more of a focus on vocational education and jobs training, than primary and secondary pedagogy and achievement.

However, the wider issue of inequity and inequality has remained at the centre of debates across a range of policy areas – and inequity is something the country’s education system has in spades.

The latest PISA reporting – the international gold-standard in educational achievement, attitudes and wellbeing across the OECD – has solidified these concerning trends of slipping educational achievement, a widening gap between the top and bottom performers, and issues with wellbeing and high rates of bullying.

The OECD data shows just 64.6 percent of 15 year olds have basic proficiency in reading and maths. This remains above the OECD average, but New Zealand’s scores have been steadily slipping.

In 2000, 15-year-old students ranked third in reading, third in maths and sixth in science. New Zealand now sits eighth, 22nd and seventh in these three areas, compared to other wealthy countries.

And the OECD study from 2018, as well as UNICEF’s global study, showed New Zealand is one of the worst when it comes to the gap between its highest and lowest achievers. Those missing out are disproportionately Māori.

There have been concerted efforts to turn this around.

Part of that puzzle was the last government’s review of the Tomorrow’s Schools model, as well as a focus on Māori learners, getting rid of National Standards to free up teacher time, and increasing the number of teachers and paying them better.

“Without the OECD and other international data, the state of New Zealand education would be a black box.”

But the results of the changes are yet to be seen, and the New Zealand Initiative’s Briar Lipson said the country was headed in the wrong direction.

“Almost everyone with children can sense that something is not right about schooling today, they just may not be able to put a finger on what exactly the issue is,” she said.

“The international data shows they are right to be worried.”

Lipson championed a move back to a curriculum that put teaching students knowledge, ahead of teaching competencies and skills.

The new report has six recommendations, with a heavy focus on changes that produced more data and led to a more diverse body of research.

Core to that is the call to return to some form of standardised testing.

National Standards were scrapped by Chris Hipkins, following calls from teachers and unions. They said the testing and reporting was cumbersome and time-consuming; it placed a disproportionate value on reading, writing and maths; and didn’t leave time to develop other skills and focus on other areas of the curriculum.

There was no data to suggest introducing National Standards lifted achievement. But the standardised testing did spark a conversation about what constituted “achievement” or “success” at school.

Lipson said doing away with mandatory standardised testing had left a hole in New Zealand’s data and in the understanding of where it sits in terms of educational achievement.

The last government put in place a range of measures to lift Māori achievement in schools, starting with unconscious bias training. Policies are described as by-Māori, for-Māori and are a stark contrast to reintroducing standardised testing. Photo: Getty Images

While standardised testing remains in primary schools – such as PAT tests – these are formative assessments, used by teachers to identify a student’s level of knowledge, comprehension and learning abilities. Teachers chose which specific tests best assess particular learning areas – not all use the same tests across the same year levels. And the results only make up a portion of the overall teacher judgment, which is reported back to the government.

In high schools, NCEA data is reported nationally. But in recent years, it has told a different story to the OECD data – NCEA results show achievement trending upwards, the OECD data has students’ achievement headed the other way.

It was hard to see just how poorly Kiwi students were performing because the Ministry of Education had not gathered the data that would enable educators; researchers and policy makers to track changes over time, or to compare schools, Lipson said.

“Without the OECD and other international data, the state of New Zealand education would be a black box.”

While the New Zealand Initiative paper did not recommend a return to the old National Standards, Lipson said a handful of mandatory standardised national assessments – taken at certain year levels – were needed to highlight the effective schools and approaches.

Lipson has previously told Newsroom the ending of National Standards was complex because their implementation had been “bungled”. 

“However, the fact that there is now no accountability in primary schools, and no straight-forward way for parents to judge how well or poorly their children are performing in these crucial years, is deeply damaging.”

The last National government introduced National Standards in 2008, but the party has not called for their return this election – neither has any other party.

However, National and ACT have both campaigned to reinstate partnership schools – something the New Zealand Initiative has also long-championed.

The report recommends bringing back the charter schools, “but with rigorous accountability”.

“I think we can all acknowledge – all teachers, all educational leaders – that our schools aren’t working for some kids.”

This is similar to the policy National’s Nicola Willis has been talking about throughout this campaign – and one which ACT’s David Seymour has consistently backed.

Labour and New Zealand First have both criticised National’s policy, with Hipkins saying charter schools were a failed experiment, which saw some kids learning out of shipping containers in a carpark.

“We have a quality public education system; we should continue to resource that; we should celebrate that. And we should put funding into making sure that it’s delivering the very best possible education that we can have,” Hipkins said in a recent education debate.

But Willis said if National was elected to government, charter schools would be funded at the same rate as state schools, they wouldn’t be allowed to charge fees, and they would operate on a contract that meant they had to target high-priority learners and lift their achievement.

If schools could not demonstrate they were meeting those obligations, their funding would dry up.

“I think we can all acknowledge – all teachers, all educational leaders – that our schools aren’t working for some kids,” she said.

“There are too many kids leaving our schools without the skills and qualifications they need to succeed. And sometimes, in a small proportion of cases, it is appropriate to try something new; to innovate, and that’s what partnership schools allow for.”

Both National and ACT are campaigning to reinstate partnership schools. This is something the new report says could help lift educational achievement and reduce the achievement gap. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Similarly, Lipson said partnership schools were about giving all parents, “not only those who can afford to move house or pay for private schools”, to have genuine choice.

“These schools were serving some of our poorest communities, and some were achieving great things.”

She saw this as another way to address the gaping gap between kids and the top and kids at the bottom

Lipson said the fault for the decline in educational achievement didn’t sit with teachers or parents.

Instead, the onus was on the education research community, the ministry and, ultimately, with elected politicians to address these issues of inequity and achievement.

“If education policy was based on evidence rather than orthodoxy, we would start to address some of New Zealand’s most systemic problems. Everything from poverty and lack of opportunities to low productivity,” she said.

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