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Teaching To The Test - National's Education Reforms

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Chris Ford
Chris Ford
Anne Tolley

Last week Education Minister Anne Tolley announced the National Party's new education standards regime. What the new regime represents is one of 'teaching to the test' rather than promoting any serious improvement in educational achievement.

Before I go any further, I am perfectly aware of the fact that literacy and numeracy skills, even amongst some university students and graduates, are appalling. Having spent the last year tutoring two political studies papers at the University of Otago, I can only attest to the headache that sometimes comes on at essay marking time with some assignments being so grammatically incorrect that I can't make out the argument. And as for spelling, well, some of it is atrocious to say the least. But I would like to emphasise that this impacts only a minority of students as most do turn in very good work and can analyse a question adequately without (as a tutor from another department has observed to me) resorting to writing in a 'stream of consciousness' style.

It is doubtful, though, that the imposition of new literacy and numeracy standards will address these issues. I can remember at primary and intermediate school being given regular spelling and maths tests. While I did well at the former, it was the latter I struggled with. Even though I was given additional tutoring to improve my performance in maths, I will admit that I still struggle, to this day, with some aspects of numeracy as do most adult New Zealanders.

International evidence shows that if teachers 'teach to the test' (as they do in the United Kingdom) it has a tendency to drive up teacher workloads. What it also serves to do is that over-achieving pupils become bored while under-achieving pupils become more disinterested in learning if everything is taught with assessment in mind. Effectively, national standards at the primary and intermediate school level will do nothing to raise overall educational standards. After all, students learn more effectively through having a wide range of subjects taught to them rather than just the three r's. Time for ongoing teacher training and development is crucial too in helping to retain teacher competency and performance rather than just being assessed on how well their pupils are doing according to some pre-determined national standard.

Furthermore, if national league tables come into play (as they have in the UK), higher decile level schools in wealthier communities will tend to perform better than those in lower decile areas. This will further serve to entrench socioeconomic and racial inequalities. Besides, disabled students and boys more than girls overall will also struggle with the new testing regime further cementing the divide between disabled and able-bodied people and the growing gender achievement gap as well.

What needs to be done, though, to address the issues that are undeniably there, is to:

  • Better resource our world leading reading and maths recovery programmes that are already used in primary and secondary schools;
  • Make tertiary education free at all levels, but failing that, make all teacher training places free and with the promise of good pay and conditions to attract the best graduates;
  • Establish a 'flying squad' of the best teachers there are (as proposed by Otago University Emeritus Professor Jim Flynn) whose job it would be to teach inside lower decile schools in order to raise educational achievement;
  • Improve ongoing support and training programmes for the existing teaching workforce; and
  • Create fairer, non-testable, achievement standards that not only will address the three r's but other areas as well.

Personally, I believe that the main role of an education system is to prepare all children not just for the capitalist workforce but for their role as future citizens. This philosophy was what the late educationalist Clarence Beeby articulated in the best social democratic way. We need to return to that ethos but at the moment the neoliberal view of education as being a mere means to prepare younger people to become employees prevails. This is why testing should not only be opposed on practical and administrative grounds but also on ideological ones.




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