Standards no help to 20pc of children who struggle

There are far better ways of measuring children's progress through the education system than by national standards, writes Terry Crooks.

When National Party leaders introduced national standards for children's achievement in reading, writing and mathematics, their main argument was that this would greatly improve the achievement of the lowest-performing 20 per cent of children.

If this could be achieved, we would all be delighted. Unfortunately, there is no evidence that measuring children against the standards will achieve this goal.

Instead, the standards' main effects will be to impose on schools a crude, misleading and unhelpful form of accountability and to focus attention on learning targets that are inappropriate for many children.

Other commentators have identified the serious dangers of using national standards data when judging the performance of schools. They have noted the inconsistency between schools in how national standards are assessed, the lack of attention to performance in other curriculum areas and important social, cultural and attitudinal outcomes, and the unfairness of publicly releasing information that cannot reveal the true merit of the programmes and teaching of each school.

Through its visits and detailed investigations, the Education Review Office provides more balanced and useful information on schools. Important though these issues of school performance and accountability are, I want to focus here on how national standards can undermine the motivation and learning of individual children.

In 2006 I was invited to appear before the education and science select committee of Parliament, which was considering the idea of setting standards for the achievement of children in each year of schooling. I told the committee members that setting appropriate standards for their students' learning was a huge professional challenge for teachers, requiring deep insight into the capabilities, interests and needs of each of those students. The goal must be to set targets as high as possible for each student: targets able to be achieved, but only with real effort. Such goals foster optimal learning and motivation. Easier goals tend to lead to boredom, harder goals to giving up.

There is overwhelming evidence worldwide that the achievement of the children in each year of schooling varies enormously. Some children perform at levels typical of children several years older, others at levels typical of children several years younger. Thus it is inappropriate to set any one level as a target for all children in a particular year of schooling.

National standards threaten to direct the focus of teachers and parents away from the most useful learning targets for many of the children.

Instead of focusing attention on a child's current level, it is far better to focus on the child's progress. All children can make progress and gain confidence through having their progress reported and celebrated.

The national standards system is poorly designed for monitoring and reporting on progress: most children will stay at similar reporting levels ('above', 'at' or 'below' standard for their year), even though they continue to make good progress in their learning.

Each Monday morning I have the pleasure of helping five children at a local school with their reading. They each have different needs and can benefit from different approaches.

If I and the other people who work with them can help to make reading more enjoyable and quickly improve their skills, that is far more meaningful and useful than comparing their performance to a national standard.

Terry Crooks is an emeritus professor of education at the University of Otago.

The Press