So, a little birdie told me that you-know-who is eager to introduce National Standards to Years 9 and 10. And by ‘a little birdie’ I mean a widely respected and renowned NZ educator who is only two degrees of separation away from she-who-must-not-be-named. When I heard this, I was gobsmacked and felt the scar on my forehead burn (actually, it was hot and had been in a 3-hour PD session in a small meeting room so I had a slight headache and the scar on my forehead didn’t actually hurt because the accident happened when I was 7…). And then I thought about it some more, and I thought, yeah, that sounds like Ann Tolley (shhhhh!!!), and I felt kinda head-achy.
In this blog-post, I’m going to explore the issue of National Standards, which were introduced to primary schools in 2010. I’m not going to explain how National Standards work, because it’s pretty straight-forward and you can find information here. Instead I will discuss whether or not National Standards would be useful and how they might function (dysfunction) in secondary schools.
As an ideal, National Standards are useful in the sense that they identify where a student is at and where they need to go next – and that’s what assessment is about, the ‘what next’ and the ‘how’. Having said that, e-asTTle does this very well already and is utilised by most primary schools and by an increasing number of secondary schools.
But the problems with National Standards are many and they are very complex. One problem is when children are compared to each other. For example, many children begin school being able to write their name, the alphabet, count and identify colours. Some children, however, do not (and there are a variety of reasons why this might happen). So no child enters on a level playing field and automatically students are labelled: ‘bright’, ‘gifted’, ‘talented’, or alternatively, ‘low-ability’, ‘challenged’, or ‘thick’ (yes, teachers still use that word). So, immediately, students and their parents are made to feel like crap. Awesome. Oh, and then these stats are used to create league tables, which ultimately means that schools will be compared against each other (not, funnily enough, against a ‘National Standard’.) And league tables suck, obviously.
Another major problem with National Standards is that they are assessment, not teaching and learning. And pouring money and resources into assessment doesn’t actually make better teachers, because assessing is not teaching, and although good assessment does provide teachers and students with good data on where to go next, it doesn’t mean that we all know how to get there. There’s nothing more irritating as a teacher than going to Professional Development on assessment (which, unfortunately, I seem to do an awful lot).
So, in a secondary school context, I shudder to think how National Standards might play out. Here are my predictions:
Firstly, it would cost a lot. All that money that could be spent on improving teaching and reducing class sizes would be spent on preparing teachers to do more assessment. And I think that’s a really stink way to spend money that’s allocated to improving teaching and learning.
Secondly, it would take up a lot of time. Every time there is a change in assessment practices e.g. Standards re-alignment ,we have to spend hours and hours attending PD to get us up to speed. Fun? No. Useful? Only vaguely. Time-wasting? Yes. Obviously teachers are over-worked already.
Thirdly - how the hell would it actually work?!? Secondary schools students are taught in subject classes, with some exceptions in integrated classes and in alternative education (and I know there are lots of dumb assumptions about students in the way that secondary schools function, but I haven’t heard from a little birdie that Tolley’s going to overhaul the system completely). So, who’d be responsible for the literacy? I shudder to think. I know that all teachers are literacy teachers (because unless you don’t teach and assess student via the use of language, you are a literacy teacher) but I bet Anne Tolley doesn’t. Just the thought of adding more assessment to an English teacher’s workload makes me feel a little ill.
Fourthly, the beautiful thing about teaching Year 9 and 10 is the lack of formal assessment; it’s so great that we don’t have to hand back students their work with a big Achieved or Not Achieved on it (unfortunately, my school does do this and it sucks majorly and I am forever complaining about it to various members of middle and senior management, heh) – instead we assess them against the curriculum. We can actually treat them as individuals and plan lessons to cater for their needs, as opposed to planning programmes that they complete because they have to gain 18 credits in the subject or they won’t get NCEA level blah (I know we are not supposed to do this but let’s be honest about the role of assessment in secondary schools, eh – it’s really dominating).
Secondary schools don’t need more assessment imposed on them from above. So, I hope like hell that this rumour is simply a rumour and not going to eventuate in anything. I just wish we had the power to vanquish the Dark Lord that is Tolley; oh wait, we do - it’s called voting in the election...