In which I work my way through the minister's explanations of national standards and award myself a gold star for effort

I'm not sure I'd pass any national standards, because I'm still confused. Education Minister Hekia Parata has finally released the comprehensive, yet unmoderated, national standards data, but I'm not any clearer what she wants us all to do with it.

Hekia Parata has a script she uses repeatedly over national standards, one which belatedly tries to minimise her love of jargon but still allows her to call school kids "learners" and say things such as:

"What we do know is that the standards are mapped to the national curriculum and that the judgements that teachers use and the assessment tools that they make their judgements on are then mapped to the standards."

Whatever that means.

When asked what national standards are for, Parata says that they're to be used to measure kids' achievement within a classroom, classroom to classroom within a school and for the government to get an idea of the health of the education system as a whole. They'll even allow the Ministry of Education to see the weak points in the system and target funds to combat that dreaded "tail".

Sounds good. So if this information's to be used in this way, it must be detailed and reliable, right? This is where the confusion begins. Because Parata won't stand behind the data; the data that the Prime Minister once called "ropey".

She says she's trusting the schools' judgment. She says the data is patchy, or rather "variable" – that schools are collecting different sorts of information, that some are writing stories and some compiling graphs, that "it's their data". You can trust what a school says about itself – mostly – but she's got a five year time-frame before we'll be able to trust the information as a whole. At least I think that's what she says. Her point is, I guess, is that it's not perfect but it's a start. Moving on...

Despite the data being "variable" and years away from being reliable, the minister is, oddly, still willing to quote it on Q+A:

"...the aggregate that we have pulled together off the basis of that data, and it tells us that 76% are at or above for reading, 72% for maths and 68% for writing; that boys are trailing girls; and Maori and Pacifika are trailing everyone else".

Which is interesting, because what these unreliable and variable figures that the government's willing to rely upon tells us is exactly what we've known for years.

Hang on though. The data isn't just for government, it's for schools and parents. Or so the minister likes to say. So what do the schools responsible for this data think of it? Well, many say it's subjective and vague. There are few [I'm told there are some tests, but they're differently applied] set tests or, well, standards, the child has to meet other than their teacher's own impression of whether they're 'working towards level three' or something similar.

Yet the minister says the government will use it:

" know across the system where more precisely do we need to be investing resources in order to grow learner achievement".

So the government's going to be using this currently unreliable data to determine where to invest millions? Or is Parata saying that the data will only be of use in five years and the government won't use it to determine funding until 2017?

Hmmm. What about the parents? Can parents use the data to compare schools? Parata was very clear on that, at least for a moment or two.

"For the purposes of comparing schools, it is not reliable".

Parata says for such comparisons you need data that's consistent between schools, and that's at least a year away. Although a full set of reliable data is five years away, remember.

And then you'll be able to compare schools, right?

"Well, the purpose of National Standards is actually to raise learner achievement in the classroom and within the kids in that classroom".

So it's not about comparing schools. She doesn't really want league tables. But wait! She also says:

"I think it's totally appropriate for parents when they're thinking about their schools not only to visit the schools, not only to know whether they like the look of the schools and the sports field, not only to understand what the arts and social studies programme is. I think it's totally appropriate that we include achievement data".

So this new achievement data is a way for parents to choose a school by, um, presumably, well, comparing it with data from other schools.

At which point I'm about to flunk this class. But using my comprehension skills, let me see if I get it. Here goes...

So Parata says you can rely on what the schools say about themselves now, but you won't be able to compare schools reliably for five years, not that she wants you to do that because the data is about learner achievement not ranking schools, but go ahead anyway and use the learner achievement data now alongside other information to choose a school because that's useful and while the data is currently variable and unreliable the ministry can still aggregate it and the government can quote from it because it's useful in that it tells us exactly what every other bit of research has been telling us for at least a decade, and at the same time the government will use this dodgy data to judge the health of the whole system and combat the tail that urgently needs to be addressed... or it might wait five years until the data's reliable.

Phew, thank goodness I was able to get that straight. For a minute there I thought this was turning into a tangled mess.

Comments (10)

by Maureen Jansen on October 01, 2012
Maureen Jansen

Well, I'd say that was well above the standard. Well done. 

by Ian MacKay on October 01, 2012
Ian MacKay

Ah so. Now we have established that there is a long tail of underachievers. Well tha's a surprise. Now we know who they are and even which school that they are in. Good.

Luckily this has only cost about $40 million. A bargain.

The crucial question should be to Parata. "You know who and where the tails are for the first time thanks to NS. (Keep a straight face there lad.)

What are you Minister Parata, or the Ministry of Education going to cure the problem of the "long tail" that you have uncovered? Resouces? Class sizes? Food for starving kids? You have opened a can of worms so what are you going to do to recover your credibility? What is the plan?

by Tim Watkin on October 01, 2012
Tim Watkin

Thanks Maureen.

In all seriousness, if anyone can explain to me what I'm missing I'd welcome a better understanding. @ Ian, but part of the problem is that she can presumably say that it's going to be hard to answer those questions until next year at least, maybe for five years. By which time she won't be Education Minister. Or maybe the answer will be more performance pay?

by stuart munro on October 02, 2012
stuart munro
  • Yet the minister says the government will use it:
  • " know across the system where more precisely do we need to be investing resources in order to grow learner achievement".
  • So the government's going to be using this currently unreliable data to determine where to invest millions?

That's what she would like you to suppose. But she's a gnat - the government will cheerfully use this data to find places to slash millions, which is the point of education after all. Readin', ritin', and reddies - what more is there to know.

by Richard Aston on October 02, 2012
Richard Aston

I think national standards are a bit of a red herring. It looks like the govt is doing something, they are tightening up on those beneficiaries, toughing it out with Maori etc and now sorting out low educational outcomes by setting up national standards.

Achievements in reading, writing and maths are in my opinion a signifcant but small part of ideal educational outcomes. The world is changing rapidly, the future our kids will live and work in will be quite different to ours and more importantly un-predictable. I suspect the important atributes needed in the future will be the ability to intelligently access and process information from wide and diverse sources. The ability to think clearly . The ability to create. The ability to relate. The development of - sorry to use an old fashion term - moral character. Probably most importantly, a finely nuanced imagination.

Standards, national or otherwise, may offer a basic warrant of fitness on some useful  skills but they will go nowhere near helping us shape an education process that helps develops fully functioning moral and creative individuals.In fact if they get too much attention they may end up distorting the system to producing standardised individuals incapable of adapting to a changing and unknown future.

The very idea of national standards linked to a standardised curriculum is itself an example of the lack of creative thinking needed to vision a better future. 





by Richard Aston on October 04, 2012
Richard Aston

Sorry for the above rant people . Realised its out of context of the original post whic was more about polical issues with the current system. Changing the whole system is a whole other debate.



by Frank Macskasy on October 07, 2012
Frank Macskasy

Good analysis, Tim... or as much as one can, with the whole barmy National Standards thing.

And make no mistake - it's barmy from beginning to end. It make no sense in any way whatsoever, except maybe in a purely ideological way.

Which in itself raises questions as to why the Nats would open a whole can of whoop-ass (love that phrase) to promote a purely ideological policy that has no economic spin-offs, nor can it be  used as a diversionary tactic (as they are doing with welfare "reforms" against the unemployed).

In short, I'm buggered if I know what the purpose of National Standards is.

And Parata - being so supremely confident - won't front to explain it. Instead she sends flunkies to front roasting interviews from the likes of Campbell.

One point I will make; Shearer should have stated that a Labour-led guvmint will dump NS. No one can understand it anyway; teachers dislike it; parents seem ambivalent or distrusting of it - so Labour has nothing to lose by branding it as neoliberal nuttiness, and filing it in the nearest paper recycling bin.

Of all National's policies, this would be the easiest to dismiss as quackery. Or "snake oil" as Dear Leader likes to say.

By the way, something I wrote - before I read your piece -

by danniel on January 11, 2013

So this whole concept is based on a healthy idea but we still don't know the details about it? How is is possible? If the minister of education can't comply with it the she should let others who know better, thousands of college students depend on her decisions. I am one of them and I'd love to see a more proactive attitude.

by mudfish on January 21, 2013

It strikes me that:

" tells us that 76% are at or above for reading, 72% for maths and 68% for writing;"  and comparisons between schools are the somewhat unreliable bits in that each school will grade differently.

But (no surprise) "that boys are trailing girls; and Maori and Pacifika are trailing everyone else" is very reliable because results will generally be well graded within each school and there is little loss of reliability in aggregating that data. What's more, for this bit of the picture, when the exercise is repeated in years to come, the gaps will be highly comparable from year to year. It's this bit that can demonstrate whether a policy focussed on reducing gaps is working or not. (But if it's not demonstrating the desired outcome, expect obfuscation and dismissal of the results as unreliable...)

In summary, I can see some benefit in national standards data, but remain to be convinced that the potential negatives from league tables etc don't outweigh the benefits.

by rickk on February 02, 2013

I think we're missing the point here. The national standards are not that confusing, we should stop emphasizing on details and we should start seeing the big picture. To pass the national standards one needs to work and comply with them. These days I am actually working on a custom writing essay, the more I work on it the more I have more confidence that the national tests won't be a problem for me.

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