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Effecting Change, Good Teaching, League Tables, National Standards, SOSNZ

Why National Standards Aren’t the Answer for Jo Bloggs

Instinctively, people like the idea of being able to see results, measure things, to compare.  We like to know where we stand.  We like to know who’s doing well and who might need a kick in the pants.  That’s human nature – we’re all about categorising and judging.  That’s not unreasonable.

But those instinctive behaviours fall down when we don’t understand what we are measuring, why we are measuring, how we are measuring, or what the measurements will be constructively used for.

Simply weighing the pig does not make it more tasty.

So here’s the problem.  Most parents want to know how their kids are doing and whether the school they are at is giving them the best possible education.  National Standards capitalise on that desire and promise to keep parents more fully informed.  But is that really true?  Do National Standards really help Mrs Jo Bloggs know more about how wee Joseph Bloggs is doing?

Not a bit of it.

In order to know how Joseph is doing, Mrs Bloggs needs to talk to his teacher, keep an eye on anything she thinks he is not grasping or is talented at so that she can tell the teacher and make sure it’s been noted and catered for, she needs to check his school books and look for improvement, she needs to encourage him to think and question and learn outside of school, she needs to scrutinise his school report and ask questions of anything that isn’t clear or doesn’t make sense.   She should read with him, cook with him, let him build and play and explore and experiment.

In other words, the best way for Mrs Bloggs to ensure wee Joseph is doing okay and is getting a decent education is to be involved.

If Mrs Bloggs expects data on a National Standards website to inform her about her own child’s learning, she will be sadly disappointed, not to mention a year out of date.

Mrs Bloggs also might want to ponder how National Standards will help her or Joseph if he has special needs, or English as a Second Language, or has a history of challenging behaviour.  Because truth be known, those are the children who often find it hard to get into a school when the schools are so scared of being judged by test scores that they avoid the more challenging children who are likely to score low on the tests.

Because National Standards do not tell you anything about how far a child has progressed, they merely give a snapshot of that child now.  According to National Standards, if your child is 12 and was reading at age 7 a year ago and is now reading at age 9.5, they are failing.  They are not average or above average, so the fabulous gain they have made is made to look like a failure.

How will Joseph feel about that, when it’s published for the world to see?

If Joseph is a talented sportsman, artist, musician, leader, environmentalist, mechanic or IT guru it will not matter to National Standards.  Maths and English, that’s all that counts.  Sure, Joseph wants to read and write well, and wants to be able to do his maths, but I’m thinking maybe he and Mrs Bloggs won’t want his talents to be over-ridden or enthusiasm quashed if his maths and English results are lower than they would like.  Focusing so heavily on two areas starts to make the rest of the curriculum look unimportant.  And that’s simply not the case.

Joseph will be very disappointed when his music classes stop or his art lessons have shoddy equipment, or the school cannot fund entry to the regional sports championships this year, and he won’t understand or care that the money’s been diverted to pay for extra coaching for maths and English for borderline students.  All he will know is that his talent is being left on the kerbside.

Joseph’s sister, Josephine is rather good at maths, as it happens.  In fact she is above average and really has a talent for it.  Well National Standards means a teacher is more likely to disproportionately use his or her time to teach (or even coach) those  children who are borderline so that they meet the average score – after all jobs are on the line and the school might look bad in the tables, leading to a falling role and to concern in the community.   Josephine’s glad her friends are being helped, but kind of feels maybe she should be being stretched too., and her spark is dimming as no-one has time to fan the flames with her.

Still, so long as everyone in the class is average, that’s okay.

Isn’t it?

So, Mrs Bloggs can see her children are average and above average in National Standards.  She can see the children in the school are generally average according to National Standards.  What has that told her about her children?  What has it told her about the leaps their classmates might have made?  And what about the children who didn’t move forward much at all but were already average – is that okay?

Mrs Bloggs is starting to think maybe, just maybe, National Standards are good only for one thing – making sensationalist headlines in newspapers.  Meanwhile, she is off to read with her children, and talk to their teachers about how they are doing, and maybe look into their school books each day to see what they are up to.  Mrs Bloggs thinks that is the best way to judge how well her children, their teachers and their schools are doing.

About Save Our Schools NZ

"One needs to be slow to form convictions, but once formed they must be defended against the heaviest odds." Gandhi


2 thoughts on “Why National Standards Aren’t the Answer for Jo Bloggs

  1. I agree strongly with many of your points. However, some of the explanation and reasoning seems to be based on an unfortunately common and perpetuated misunderstanding about National Standards. The standards do not represent ‘average’. In fact the standards have nothing to do with mean achievement levels. The standards were developed using a back-mapping approach and represent the level that a panel of experts decided a child should be achieving at in order to be ‘on-track’ to achieving NCEA level 2. A standards-based assessment (such as National Standards) compares a student to a benchmark. The student either reaches the benchmark, or they do not. A standardised assessment, on the other hand, allows for achievement to be compared to a set of norms – in other words, enables the comparison of an individual’s performance with a sample of their peers, and will show where they sit in relation to the sample distribution. This will tell you whether the student’s achievement level is above or below average. PATs are an example of standardised assessment. National Standards are most certainly not, and National Standards do not have the capacity to convey information about how individual student achievement compares to the average.

    Unfortunately, there seems to have been very little effort put into educating the public about the actual nature of the standards and what information they will and will not provide. In fact, I have seen examples of key political figures involved in the implementation of this policy encouraging the perpetuation of this particular misunderstanding through the rhetoric they employ. In order to really progress the debate around this controversial policy shift, I think we need to invest some more time and effort into ensuring that people know and understand the principles and processes, rather than just the politics.


    Posted by Josephine Bloggs | August 24, 2012, 4:48 pm
  2. Thank you Josephine, for clarifying that. My use of the word ‘average’ was chosen to mean ‘the level that a panel of experts decided a child should be achieving at in order to be ‘on-track’ to achieving NCEA level 2’ – that is, not below and not above expectations. I wasn’t implying a statistical mean (or mode, or median), but it’s good to have that made more clear, for sure. In short, it all adds more grist to the mill for arguing how useless National Standards will be to parents and children. Sigh.


    Posted by Flo | August 24, 2012, 5:20 pm

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