League tables – titillating lists of misleading information

Education Minister Anne Tolley is a real worry. She has the responsibility for our public education system and yet is planning a policy decision which would seriously weaken primary and intermediate school education.

As with most political decisions it comes with a veneer carefully polished for the public while hiding another agenda altogether.

The veneer is the setting of national standards whereby individual students are tested at several stages in primary and intermediate school so parents will know how their child is progressing and what their strengths and weaknesses are in relation to other students. It would enable teachers and parents to work together on plans to extend a child’s strengths and work on their weaknesses. So far so good. School reporting to parents should always give good information on progress in relation to national benchmarks and this is what already happens in almost every school despite Tolley suggesting otherwise.

Where her approach comes off the educational rails is for this information to be collated by the Ministry of Education and made public for every primary and intermediate school in the country. This would mean the media creating “league tables” comparing achievement levels between schools and Tolley has no objection to this.

At the heart of the problem is the irresponsible use of such information by the media. We have only to look at the appalling job in the presentation of NCEA data on secondary schools. Newspapers always include commentary in the fine print which quotes educationalists cautioning on the use of the data and how the results do not equate to a school doing either a good or a bad job in the education of students. These cautions are lost to the lure of lists and rankings.

National assessment of any kind measures just a narrow range of educational outcomes. It says nothing about student engagement, passion for learning or the development of social skills for example.

We also know precisely what the results will show before the first list is published. The correlation between student achievement and parental income across a whole school overwhelms anything else. The highest achievement levels will be from schools in high-income areas and the lowest will be from schools in low-income areas. In other words it won’t tell us anything we don’t already know.

Many secondary schools have become adept at manipulating their data to improve their rankings in the league tables. Students unlikely to do well in NCEA can be removed from the school roll early or the number of NCEA credits a low-achieving student is attempting can be reduced so they are not eligible for a certificate and therefore not counted.

A favourite mechanism for some schools is to set tougher entry criteria for students to move from say Level 2 to Level 3 NCEA. This can force less able students to shift schools to get the subjects they want and prevent them “polluting” the school’s exam results.

Secondary schools are well aware of these practices but they continue, not because they are somehow improving education for students but because they are enhancing the reputation of the school. It’s about competition in the marketplace where creating the right impression with parents is more important than doing the absolute best for every student.

We would see precisely the same practices in primary and intermediate schools if Tolley and ACT have their way. The educational focus will quickly shift to testing and assessment to get pupils through the educational hoops. Creativity in the classroom will take a hammering as teachers “teach to the tests”. These tests will be high-stakes for the school but of minor importance in the education of the children.

These have been some of the effects in Australia and the UK where school “league tables” have had a corrosive effect on education.

The advice of Anne Tolley’s own officials is against the Minister but she appears unmoved.

Educationalist Dr Liz Gordon from the Quality Public Education Coalition says we already know there is a hierarchy of school performance based on student background. She points to New Zealand’s standing in international reading studies over the past 20 years where we have dropped from first, to 6th, to 13th and now to 24th in the world rankings for literacy. Liz Gordon says the sole reason is that economic and social inequalities have impacted heavily on the bottom quarter of the population, putting up huge barriers to learning and causing falling levels of literacy.

Lets address the causes of children failing instead of deceiving parents with titillating lists of misleading information.