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Standardised testing in New Zealand schools – Expert Q&A

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 SMC asked experts to comment on the evidence behind standardised testing and its current use in New Zealand.

Associate Professor Ruth Boyask, School of Education, Auckland University of Technology, comments:

“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.”

Conflict of interest statement: “Recent research on children’s reading funded by:

  • National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa
  • Ministry of Social Development Te Manatū Whakahiato Ora”

Gavin Brown, Professor and Manutaki / Director Quantitative Data Analysis and Research Unit, Faculty of Education & Social Work, University of Auckland, comments:

What does the evidence say around the usefulness of such testing?

“Regular monitoring assessment does not hurt students. Section 5.2 of the report makes clear there will be frequent formative assessment prior to checkpoints. The report makes clear that no publication of results is envisaged, thus avoiding shame/blame or praise by having results reported centrally or in the media. That will require strong explicit regulation to prevent it becoming league tables.

“Annual testing will not hurt students, but if data privacy is not respected it will harm teachers and schools. If the data are centrally reported, it will need to be released under Freedom of Information regulations. So, the data has to be owned by schools and the testing and data analysis have to be done in schools and not externally. The computerised e-asTTle system is a model of how this could be done.”

What is standard practice in New Zealand when it comes to standardised testing?

“There are two major suites of standardised tests for use in primary and junior high school grade ranges. These are voluntary use and not centrally mandated.

“Schools that rely on Progressive Achievement Testing bought from the NZCER, generally administer these once per year for guidance to teachers and reporting to parents. The tests are zero-stakes for students but schools can use them for grouping of students for instruction.

“Schools that rely on the e-asTTle test system, have been advised that tests should not be administered more than once per school term. Time needs to be given to teaching. Nonetheless, e-asTTle has tests for reading, writing, and mathematics so it is possible that could cover the goals of the report.”

What are the current global trends, if any, around standardised testing in schools?

“If there is a global trend it is toward more frequent formal testing (especially in Asia, Latin America, Africa). The USA and UK use standardised tests to judge schools more than to certify student accomplishments. But formal testing to vet students for graduation is used world-wide.

“New Zealand among the English-language Commonwealth nations has less formal testing in primary education than other countries. For example, Australia has annual checkpoint testing for literacy and numeracy for students in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9 through NAPLAN.

“Our resistance to formal testing reflects more of a Nordic nations approach to relying heavily on teacher-based assessment rather than formal testing.”

No conflicts of interest.

Professor Georgina Tuari Stewart (Ngāpuhi-nui-tonu, Pare Hauraki), Te Ara Poutama, Auckland University of Technology, comments:

What does the evidence say around the usefulness of such testing?

“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.”

What is standard practice in NZ when it comes to standardised testing?

“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.”

What are the current global trends, if any, around standardised testing in schools?

“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.”

No conflicts of interest.