Getting the right measures for student and school progress

Start of new year a time of promise

The start of the new school year is a time of promise for most students and teachers. For principals, it’s also a time when they polish off their annual reports to the Ministry of Education, submitting the achievement levels of their students. Primary schools report the numbers of students who are assessed as being above, at, below, or well below the national standard for their year or time at school. But the Ministry of Education, with good reason, advises schools not to use these levels in their reporting to parents. Why?

A prime reason is that these levels are abstract. They don’t provide parents – and students – with a good description of a student’s strengths and the skills and knowledge they need to be working on next. They don’t show the progress that students are making, unless that progress takes them into the next level – which won’t be the case for most students. Without that kind of information, assessment only categorises. It doesn’t help motivate students, give them goals to be working toward. It doesn’t help parents.

The Ministry of Education website advises schools that reports to parents are about sharing information in ways that encourage parents to support children’s learning at home, giving them pointers to things they can do with them on the specific goals they have, and showing how teachers are working with students on the things that they need to progress. What we know from research about student and school progress is that it’s this kind of perspective that improves teaching and learning, and that makes a real difference for students.

Yet we get fixated on the levels. Principals get discouraged when all the work students and teachers have done and the progress that has been made doesn’t necessarily shift the numbers at the school level. At the system level, there’s been very little change in the proportion of students who are categorised as at or above the national standard. Simply asking schools to report levels of achievement is not enough on its own.

I’m starting 2016 optimistic that we are beginning to turn a corner on how we support school leaders and teachers. The new Communities of Learning, ERO’s new evaluation indicators, changes to government support for professional learning development, and the standards for principals and teachers that we support at the Education Council all foster an increasingly sophisticated approach to teaching and learning. The core of that research-based approach is cycles of evaluative inquiry that focus school professionals on the progress students are making, and how effective their work has been in helping students progress. We’re seeing much greater awareness of the role of student motivation, of developing the vital learning-to-learn and ‘soft’ skills that help students progress at school, and give them the resilience, communication and problem-solving skills they’ll need as adults. 

But all that work could be undermined if schools feel that they’re not going to be measured on how they improve and enrich the learning of their students, but simply on the national standards. The national standards only cover reading, writing, and mathematics: crucial areas, but not all we need students to master.

Right now, work is being done to update the 1989 Education Act. School reporting is one of the areas being looked at, alongside the question of whether the Act should contain some specific achievement goals. We could go one of three ways. We could follow countries like the USA or England that put their faith in levels-based school reporting accountability, with repercussions for schools that fail to meet set targets.  But that approach hasn’t improved student outcomes. The second option is a variant which initially looks more promising, because it does focus on progress: the rate of gain made by students over a year, the ‘value-added’ by schools. The trouble is that the measures of ‘value-added’ turn out not to be as robust or valid as people hoped. They also only cover some aspects of the curriculum. And again, it’s not an approach that improves student outcomes overall. The third option is to align school reporting with evaluative inquiry, and use it as the opportunity to support schools to keep developing, rather than a distraction that seems to be more about compliance or spurious and unfair judgements. We ask an increasing amount of our school leaders and teachers. It’s time we made sure that everything we ask assists them help students to progress.


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