Auckland Primary Principals' Forum

  • Brian Donnelly
Associate Minister of Education (Early Childhood Education and Maori Education)

Good morning to you all and thank you for the opportunity to speak about the Green Paper Assessment for Success in Primary Schools.

We've just heard two viewpoints which have been promoted quite widely around New Zealand since the Green Paper was released a month ago. And I detect from the list of questions you would like me to address, a large degree of scepticism about the project.

The government is committed to achieving the best possible educational experience for all New Zealanders. Our actions thus far should have demonstrated such a commitment. The proposals for developing an assessment package stems from a desire for increasing the quality of education.

I want to emphasise from the outset that what we are talking about is a consultative document. No decisions have been made about the final form of national assessment. This is in line with the general thrust of this administration. The Government favours the Green Paper approach and I can assure you that this paper is very green.

What we are asking from people such as yourselves, people whose careers are directed towards the benefit of the nation's students, is the input of your expertise. We have laid out our current thinking and invite you to respond. But in your response we are asking you to think through the question: "where are the gaps in our current set of assessment tools?"

From our combined endeavours will come the means to further assist the people we are all charged with developing into educated, productive New Zealanders.

Throughout the development of "Assessment for Success" I want people to keep in mind certain principles:

the interest of students is to be paramount. There's nothing radical about that. In fact it was a key principle in a similar discussion document on assessment 10 years ago. I refer of course to the Assessment for Better Learning document. we will value only that information which has the potential to bring about constructive change and improvement. we value the dedication and expertise of our educators and will work to involve them in all our activities.

But again I wish to emphasise that final decisions have not been taken. The purpose of a consultation document is to encourage debate about, and constructive responses to, policy proposals.

Teachers are fond of saying that they teach their children from where they are at.

However, the follow-up question must be: "How do you know where your pupils are at?" Obviously the answer lies in the outcomes of appropriate assessment and evaluation procedures.

The National Administration Guidelines require schools to "monitor student progress against national achievement objectives" and to "assess student achievement , maintain individual records and report on student progress."

On the surface, to members of the public and parents, these seem to be simple and straightforward directives. In fact, as you are all well aware, they are extremely complex and challenging.

For a starter there are a very large number of achievement objectives in the National Curriculum Statements. For example, there are more than 200 in Levels One through Five in the mathematics curriculum. I personally know this because I spent hundreds of hours writing tests which could be used by the teachers at Whangarei Intermediate.

I figured that one person writing the tests for 20 or so teachers was efficient use of time. However, I used to feel extremely angry that there wasn't someone centrally producing high quality material related to the outcome objectives.

The second issue is that many of the objectives are not particularly specific. For example, in the English statement, Level Three, Reading Functions, we have: "Select and read independently, for enjoyment and information, different contemporary and historical texts, integrating reading processes with ease."

As I said, not very specific; which leads me on to the next issue ? comparability of assessment results.

During a visit to a school I noted that the teachers had all dutifully recorded recall and inferential results for their students from the reading comprehension tests. Obviously this had taken considerable time.

However, when I asked them how they used the information they simply said "we don't". Another example was a teacher from a neighbouring contributing school who asked me for a copy of Form 1 Study Skills Test.

In our discussion I noted that we didn't use them. He said that his school did them every year. When I asked him "why?" he replied "I don't actually know".

Since the National Curriculum Framework was introduced many teachers have committed an enormous amount of time producing assessment tools and using existing ones. I would be the first to admit the tests I produced were not of the highest quality given the time and resource constraints I faced. That would be true of many of the teacher-created tools. Because these tools are idiosyncratic school-based they provide no comparative data with the rest of the country.

One of the points I wish to stress is that a national testing programme is just one component of the proposed package in the Green Paper.

The package includes support for schools in creating their own assessment tools through the Assessment Resource Banks, in providing examples of normative achievement levels in other curriculum areas such as oral language or social studies, as well as the suggestion of additional diagnostic tests which schools might use.

When it comes to assessment, the adage that one shoe does not fit all is absolutely true. Different purposes require different tools. Teachers will still need to devise their own class-based assessment materials.

Much criticism has focused on the idea of testing. But the discussion paper contains much more than that.

It proposes an integrated package of assessment tools, based firmly on the curriculum, which will allow schools to see how their students are learning compared with their counterparts across the country.

It is fairly understandable that the focus of attention has been on the testing component of the package. There is one concern which I share with you. I do not believe the creation and publication of ordered lists of schools ( in other words league tables) is of any value whatsoever.

Whatever decisions arise from the Green Paper I can confirm a commitment by the government that they will not lead to the development and publication by the government of league tables.

I am already on record as saying that the fundamental problem with such tables is that people receive messages which may be totally inaccurate. And we point out in the Green Paper that league tables are crude and misleading.

Typically league tables are based upon measurements of a very narrow range of skills which advantage students from certain socio-economic and cultural heritages.

Since student achievement is correlated with background factors such as SES, information in relation to national norms does not tell a school how effective its programmes really are. A school with low SES would seem ineffective, and a school with high SES would seem very effective. This may not reflect the true picture.

Some low SES schools are superb, and some high SES schools are just cruising. What is important for a school to know is how well its students are doing compared with similar students in other schools.

The proposed reports from the national tests would provide schools with information on its students compared with similar SES groups of students, so schools could see that groups of similar schools are doing better, or less well, for similar groups of students. This information could be very useful in helping schools to identify where efforts for improvement of programmes should be targeted.

Assessment should provide students and teachers with timely feedback on what has been learned and enable teaching to move forward.

The argument has been mounted that we already have Progressive Achievement Tests. However, PAT's are not related to the current NZ curriculum statements, are limited to multiple choice questions and do not provide information on group achievement trends. In other words they are anachronistic.

Another misconception is that results from the National Educational Monitoring Project provides schools with necessary information about the progress of students. Nothing could be further from the truth.

NEMP is an initiative that has the potential to provide very useful information about national trends. However, it cannot be used to give schools information about their students and the effectiveness of their programmes in relation to national or group achievement trends. But the Green Paper proposes to modify NEMP to produce better information on specific groups by undertaking in-depth probe studies. These could provide useful information to help explain differences in the performance of these students, and they could be taken with relatively small samples of schools and students.

We now have two months to the deadline for submissions. I continue to urge everyone with the best interests of our young people's education at heart to think carefully about what's been suggested and to let us have the benefit of their deliberations.

The Ministry has received a number of submissions already, and we look forward to further contributions to the development of the assessment proposals.

Much of the discussion has been around the proposed tests, which is important to look at in the context of the whole package of proposals. Tests alone could not provide the comprehensive information on student achievement needed by teachers to develop appropriate programmes. The nature and focus of any national tests will only be determined after analysis of the submissions.

Some feedback suggests that teachers would prefer more comprehensive national assessments covering a broader range of learning objectives from the curriculum. The tests, as currently proposed, would include only selected language and mathematics achievement objectives. The Ministry would welcome feedback on other curriculum areas you would like to see focused on in the proposed testing programme, taking into account the coverage provided in the full national assessment package.

In its current form the Green Paper proposes a very narrow testing regime. People might like to
explore whether that should be broadened.

The advantage of testing a broader range of learning objectives is that teachers and principals would obtain a wide range of information about student achievement. This could provide them with more comprehensive indicators of the relative effectiveness of their programmes.

However, a more comprehensive testing programme would involve more testing time for both teachers and students, and more work for teachers in carrying out and evaluating performance-based tasks. The Ministry would welcome feedback on whether a more comprehensive testing programme would be more useful to you, with the advantages of the additional information gained for teaching and learning more than offsetting the additional time required.

One of the frequently voiced criticisms of the Green Paper is that "teachers will teach to the test".

Although it is suggested that the tests would include only a limited number of achievement objectives, they would be directly linked to the curriculum, so would be based on what teachers teach anyway. What is the problem with teachers teaching children how to read and add? The only problem would be if this was all they taught.

No responsible professional teacher restricts the curriculum to these areas of learning.

Why years 6 and 8?

To a certain extent these year levels are arbitrary, so we welcome feedback on whether other year levels would be better. These year levels are related to the original proposal for transition point assessment in the NZCF.

The reason was that these are critical change points in a student?s school life. In relation to the current proposal, these points represent the end of periods of schooling (middle and upper primary). You will note that it is also proposed to have tests at the end of early primary (year 4). In preparing your submissions I would again remind you of the principles at play throughout:

the interest of students is to be paramount.
we will value only that information which has the potential to bring about constructive change and improvement. we value the dedication and expertise of our educators and will work to involve them in all our activities.
In the development of our thinking on this issue we will be taking on board the experience of other educational systems. To me the issue is about improved learning.

None of us can hold our heads too high after the results of the TIMSS study. In particular, the results of Maori and Pacific Island students in that study must be a cause for common concern.

My goals in this process are to see the development of an assessment matrix, a set of tools which will provide teachers and principals with information about their students' learning which will inform them of strengths and weaknesses in their programmes. As I have said elsewhere, measuring a piece of string does not make it longer. The challenge to all of you as principals is to analyse what you are presently measuring, recording and communicating to parents, to ask whether this measurement is against the objectives in the current curriculum statements and to most of all ask the question, are we using this information for any constructive purpose.

Then you need to say to yourselves, what tools are missing. What assessment materials would I like to see developed which could be used to provide better information about the learning of the students in my school, what better information could be provided for parents.

Once you have gone through that process, return to the Green Paper and evaluate what it is saying and then respond.

Finally I wish to reconfirm that this Green Paper is very green. However, the impact of any response will be determined by the quality of the thinking behind that response. Shallow, emotional and poorly informed responses will obviously receive little truck.

Those which focus on the important issues what information are we lacking about our students' learning progress and what do we need to do to develop tools to enable such information to be gained ?those submissions will be given full consideration and will inform our final decisions.