Standardised testing in NZ schools

21 Jun, 2024
Standardised testing in NZ schools

An advisory group for the Minister of Education recommends that students take “checkpoint” tests every year to assess their progress in maths and reading.

The report cautions that test results should be for classroom and school use only, and that using them as a quality or performance measure risks driving teachers to “teach to the test".

The Science Media Centre asked experts to comment on the evidence behind standardised testing and its current use in New Zealand

AUT's Associate Professor Ruth Boyask said:

“Standardised models of assessment are difficult to design fairly and come with costs for children that can impact upon their life course.

“An assessment of learning can be a valuable tool for equalising and improving outcomes in literacy, yet singular and standardised assessments of children, especially very young children, are notoriously unreliable and often harmful to learning. The advisory group rightly advise against using the data for school accountability to government, though collecting such data may prove tempting to use for these purposes, creating a market economy of schools. However, even generating data for within-school use can have negative effects on children.

“Studies in other education systems that have adopted or attempted standardised testing of early literacy find too much variability in results to prove them reliable or fair due to factors such as variation in the administration of tests and interpretation of results, inexperience of children in being tested, external factors influencing how children feel on the day, inconsistencies when children or teachers move from one school to another and differences in age within classrooms.

“Children labelled from an early age as struggling with literacy can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is especially a risk if outcomes are shared by the teacher with the children, through setting or marking, or with parents, through reporting. Teachers are likely to teach to the test, which is especially detrimental to children who do not have literate-rich home environments. Over-testing in schools creates anxiety and affects children’s mental wellbeing.

“An alternative to standardising assessment of literacy outcomes for young children is ensuring that teachers are very well prepared for teaching literacy, by building their understanding of the research on early literacy and creating literate-rich environments.”

AUT's Professor Georgina Tuari Stewart (Ngāpuhi-nui-tonu, Pare Hauraki) said:

“The call for annual ‘checkpoint’ literacy and numeracy tests amounts to the return by stealth of National Standards into New Zealand schools. Such testing is not merely useless, but clearly harmful to children. In 2009, the John Key-led government introduced National Standards against the strenuous advice of this country’s foremost educational experts, based on evidence from overseas.

“Standardised testing is not standard practice in New Zealand primary schools and never has been, yet our schools are among the best in the world. The decline of New Zealand’s ranking in large international studies such as PISA is touted as evidence of the need for standardised testing, but this ignores the fact that performance in these studies is directly related to the homogeneity of the national population.

“As New Zealand’s school population has become increasingly diverse over the last 40-50 years, our ranking in these comparative studies has inevitably slipped. But our top performers are still world class, and overall our schools still deliver excellent education – without standardised testing.

“Debate about standardised testing in schools continues to rage in the UK and US. Researchers amass evidence of the educational harm it causes, but their right-wing governments pay no heed. The disconnection between the evidence from education and the popularity of standardised testing among right-wing politicians suggests other forces are at work.

“Standardised testing enables the production of league tables, which in turn prime real estate markets. One can only conclude that the current government, like the previous National-led government, wants standardised testing in order to benefit the already-wealthy of this country.”

The above comments were first published by the Science Media Centre.

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