Thursday, December 18, 2008

Testing our way into the 19th C!

Those with their minds firmly fixed in a patronising, mechanistic, or technocratic approach, always see measurement as the ultimate way of guaranteeing progress.Like any simple solution to a complex problem it is wrong -and has been proved so. Standard based teaching was the approach of education in Victorian times - each class was called a standard ( standard one etc) that you progressed to if you passed the test. In the early days, in the UK, teachers were paid by results their students gained in the tests. Maybe that is next on our 'new' governments agenda?

The National Government has rushed through its National Testing Legislation.According to the Prime Minister ' all students will face testing against national standards in literacy and numeracy from next year'.

What exactly this populist and reactionary legislation means in action will be discovered next year. It is hard to believe that this was seen as a priority when the real issue is to equip students with the dispositions they will need thrive in an uncertain and potentially exciting future. Not that literacy and numeracy aren't important - they are - but they are best seen as vital 'foundation skills' to be in place for students to use to further their learning and not an end in themselves. The new Government made no reference to the liberating intent of the 2007 curriculum as they head back to the past.

And it is not to say that primary schools do not currently test their students. Far from it
. As Kelvin Smythe says ,' schools are already assessed up to the gunwales...the last thing they need is more pressure from the Review Office for even more assessment'. National Party policy statements say that new tests won't be required as teachers already use AsTTle and PAT etc but they will be establishing benchmarks setting out minimum skills. This might not be such a concern as many school already do this and, if it were simplified, it might cut out the need for so many tests. Some of the tests schools are 'encouraged' to use , according to Kelvin Smythe, are overblown providing lots of data and little information, and I agree with him.

We will have to wait and see.

In the meantime in the UK has shown that national testing, although providing initial improvements,are now plateauing and trending down. In the UK results are published in 'league table' ( without reference to decile rating) creating 'winner and loser' schools. Ironically punishing, in the process, the very students who make up the 'achievement tail'. And standardised tests always have an 'achievement tail!

The same situation occurs with President Bush's 'No Child Left Behind' ( NCLB) standardised testing.

Both in the UK and the USA teachers teach to the test aiming their attention to those students not quite making the grade to improve their graphs. Such a narrow approach, in both countries, has led to the undermining of creative teaching, less time spent on other important areas of the curriculum, all leading to shallow learning. UK educator Guy Claxton writes that a side product of measurable improved achievement results is creating anxiety in both students and their parents, let alone killing the creativity of teachers, and is resulting in students losing the joy of reading and maths. 'The assessment tail is wagging the dog', or as they say, 'you can't fatten a pig by measuring it'!

National testing comes with a cost.

Canadian educationist Michael Fullan believes New Zealand in coasting on past success ( Education Gazette Nov 08) and believes we need to focus on 'capacity building' ( the 'will and skill') of teachers before accountability so as to implement successful practices. Reflecting back to the literacy programmes before Tomorrow's Schools might indicate where we have gone wrong.

All the imposed 'best practice' literacy and numeracy programmes of the past decades has not shown the improvement promised. As well this emphasis has all but squeezed out inquiry learning and the creative arts. If anything literacy and numeracy needs to be 're framed' to ensure students have the information gathering and expressive skills to ensure students gain both deep understanding and the important key competencies, or future learning dispositions.

The worst effects of the imposition of this 'Big Brother' national testing ( by a Government that believes in freedom, initiative and individual enterprise) will be on the enthusiasm, morale and creativity of teachers. Such a testing regime will create conformist teaching - the very thing we don't want if we are to really face up to the 'achievement tail'.

Kelvin Squire the former president of the New Zealand Principal's Federation , is quoted by Kelvin Smthe, saying, ' We could be moving to Worst Evidence Stupidity.We know that punitive, high stakes testing doesn't work....I've travelled all over the world with the Principal's Federation and I have seen it doesn't work.I'd resist national testing, do civil disobedience, if I had to!'

In Australia the same testing agenda is being implemented
and, according to a past Director General of Education Queensland Phil Cullen, this measurement obsessed hierarchy is destroying the purpose of true education. He quotes Alfie Kohn one of Americas most outspoken critic of testing. Kohn writes, ' A plague has been sweeping through schools wiping out the most innovative instruction and beating down some of the best teachers....ironically this plague has been released in the name of improving schools.Invoking such terms as "tougher standards" people with little understanding of how children learn have imposed a heavy handed, top down , test driven version of school reform that is lowering the quality of education in this country...Turning schools into giant test-prep centres, effectively closing off intellectual inquiry and undermining enthusiasm for learning ( and teaching).It has taken longer to realize that this is a ...political movement that must be opposed'.

Lester Flockton echoes thoughts in this blog in his article in the November Principal Magazine. He has expanded his views in an article in December's excellent Education Today magazine. He states that it is 'nonsensical and unfair to expect that schools alone should be accountable for the educational malaise'. He continues 'school are good for children but they cannot overcome deep deficits'. Lets not kid ourselves' he says.

These thoughts of Lester's about the wider responsibility of society to underachieving schools relates to ideas that Kelvin Squires has also written about. It is all to a easy to fix blame on school and then only to offer simplistic populist solutions.

What is required is broader bolder approach to education. Schools must play their part by providing opportunities for all students to reach their full potential. However there is no evidence that schools alone, no matter how good, can close worrying educational achievement gaps.

A broader school approach would not only focus on basic skills but also to develop the whole person including physical health, character, social development and non academic skills - the 'key competencies'.

A broader approach would also need to focus on the total environment the students come from, the importance of high quality early childhood, the encouraging of at least one parent to be able to look after children for the first three years with all the support possible, and developing integrated relationships between schools and other community organisations.

Testing just doesn't cut it!


Anonymous said...

Bruce, Perry Rush from Island Bay School has an article on National Standards in to day's Dom. For me so what if a school does not meet the national standard? What next? Is the school outed? Do schools then publish the -'look at me' messages- we are ok come to us.Moe needs to revisit Helen Timperley and her teams research about PD and change in the South Auckland Schools literacy Project. Improvements come when there is a collaborative open culture where a teacher acknowledges that I have some issues and seeks support knowing that that peers and colleagues will together work with that teacher. A " this Our problem approach"

Bruce Hammonds said...

Thanks Paul. Such a testing regime , checked by the ill qualified ERO 'thought police', will produce, as you say, 'winner and loser schools based on very narrow information.

I do also have my worries about all the current 'formulaic' literacy and numeracy 'best practice' teaching that may result in 'improvement' but could also limit individual teacher creativity. It is this individual creativity that has always been the strength of primary teaching. We need both collaborative and creative teaching.

And, to be honest, the real big problem is dis-enagement from learning by students in years 7 to 10. Testing will not reverse this situation - only engaging learning opportunities.

Creative personalised learning from birth to death is required. Schools, as the are currently structured, are not always the best way to achieve this.

Anonymous said...

You are absolutely right. This is nonsense stuff just when it looked like the last 20 year shambles was to be left behind and we would move schools to personalised learning and some enjoyment.
It's easy for principals to gain the improvement sought by these turkeys - just don't test the lowest achieving 5%. The national standard has just been improved.
Or ignore the whole thing!!!

Bruce Hammonds said...

Too many vote catching turkeys running things and not enough free thinking eagles. As the saying goes 'it is hard to soar like an eagle when you are surrounded by turkeys' - or populist politicians!

And just when we thought we were winning!

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Bruce

I can sense the tension here and I'm not surprised. The prediction that I found most disturbing was the idea that the advancement of a learner to the next curriculum level in a discipline such as Science be governed by the learner's literacy level as determined by asTTle testing.

I can see no finer way of discouraging learning than disallowing the learner from progressing in what could perhaps be an especial interest.

When I was a year 9 learner, my literacy was brought on by an avid interest in Science. I read nothing but magazines and books on Science. By this means my literacy improved. I wonder how well I might have progressed if I'd been told I could not further my interest in Science until I moved to the appropriate literacy level. It reminds me of the one liner:

Catchya later
from Middle-earth

Bruce Hammonds said...

Kia ora Middle Earth

I haven't heard about the idea of students progress in science, or whatever, being 'promoted' depending on their asTTLe results. I think aaTTLe is over-rated and far too time consuming my self.

The idea does fit in with the traditional sorting out approach of exam orientated schooling.

Your point about learning ( including literacy) being driven by a desire to make personal meaning is the most important one of all.

I have always wondered why such an obvious idea is ignored by teachers.

'Flogging the testing idea will continue until learning occurs'!

Anonymous said...

Hi Bruce,
I totally agree with all your comments... teaching to the tests, loosing creativity etc. Part of me wants to be 'Devils Advocate' here. As I see it we are already national testing- AsTTle, PAT, STAR. Aren't the Exemplars nationally accepted / promoted standards as well. It is not the test itself that is the problem as we are already going well down that track.
For me there are two main problems.
Firstly the publishing of the results is the main cause for concern because of this that we get the 'test focussed' teaching, the fear and the morale issues for schools and staff.
Secondly it is the MOE U turn, the lack of continued innovative direction/leadership shown in the NZ Curriculum. Mary Chamberlain has been the voice of curriculum common sense in the MOE for so long and now she needs to get in someones ear and have a reasonably forceful word.
As for me - What schools / communities are passionate about is our mandate, our ‘mountain we bow to’ (to quote Mr B Hammonds) but there are other things we need to ‘just do it’. If the reality of national testing, not the perception, interferes with my school’s mandate then I will absolutely fight against it.

We are national testing already so what are the real issues here that we need to collectively fight against?

PS another great read….Unlimited – the new Learning Revolution 2008. Gordon Dryden and Jeannette Vos. Do you have a copy? If not I’ll get Santa to send you a copy.
Have a great Christmas Bruce

Bruce Hammonds said...

Hi Roger!

I haven't a copy of Dryden's book but I did hear him on National Radio last week. In response to a question about 'national' testing he was very dismissive calling it nonsense.He believes in personalisation - an individual learning programme for everyone.

Dryden believes kids need to build on their talents and be able to work in teams. They need, he said, to have the 'authoring', editing, presenting skills of Peter Jackson - the new literacies. And he believes the best of NZ primary schools are world beaters but he is not so encouraging about secondary education - an oudated system

Anonymous said...

I spent five years as a middle school principal in Virginia before becoming Director of Instruction. I used to tell my teachers to forget about the Standards of Learning tests that came in May each year. Just focus on kids learning your content and the test results will follow. Visit our blog ( to see the thoughts of three educators (a teacher, an Instructional Technology Resource Teacher, and me)who believe that we need to shift the focus from teaching to learning. Get the teacher out of the picture--not to the exteme of "teach them how to read and then leave them alone" but rather "give them the tools and let them explore."

Bruce Hammonds said...

Hi Jim

Thanks for taking the time to comment. I agree entirely with you that if teachers were to focus on learning ( both deep content and process) then they would have the learning confidence to pass whatever tests are put in front of them. As you say it is about giving them the 'learning tools' combined with an engaging reason to use them. Schools that ignore this make it hard for themselves and their studnts.

I enjoyed your own blog.