In which I work my way through the minister's explanations of national standards and award myself a gold star for effort
I'm not sure I'd pass any national standards, because I'm still confused. Education Minister Hekia Parata has finally released the comprehensive, yet unmoderated, national standards data, but I'm not any clearer what she wants us all to do with it.
Hekia Parata has a script she uses repeatedly over national standards, one which belatedly tries to minimise her love of jargon but still allows her to call school kids "learners" and say things such as:
"What we do know is that the standards are mapped to the national curriculum and that the judgements that teachers use and the assessment tools that they make their judgements on are then mapped to the standards."
Whatever that means.
When asked what national standards are for, Parata says that they're to be used to measure kids' achievement within a classroom, classroom to classroom within a school and for the government to get an idea of the health of the education system as a whole. They'll even allow the Ministry of Education to see the weak points in the system and target funds to combat that dreaded "tail".
Sounds good. So if this information's to be used in this way, it must be detailed and reliable, right? This is where the confusion begins. Because Parata won't stand behind the data; the data that the Prime Minister once called "ropey".
She says she's trusting the schools' judgment. She says the data is patchy, or rather "variable" – that schools are collecting different sorts of information, that some are writing stories and some compiling graphs, that "it's their data". You can trust what a school says about itself – mostly – but she's got a five year time-frame before we'll be able to trust the information as a whole. At least I think that's what she says. Her point is, I guess, is that it's not perfect but it's a start. Moving on...
Despite the data being "variable" and years away from being reliable, the minister is, oddly, still willing to quote it on Q+A:
"...the aggregate that we have pulled together off the basis of that data, and it tells us that 76% are at or above for reading, 72% for maths and 68% for writing; that boys are trailing girls; and Maori and Pacifika are trailing everyone else".
Which is interesting, because what these unreliable and variable figures that the government's willing to rely upon tells us is exactly what we've known for years.
Hang on though. The data isn't just for government, it's for schools and parents. Or so the minister likes to say. So what do the schools responsible for this data think of it? Well, many say it's subjective and vague. There are few [I'm told there are some tests, but they're differently applied] set tests or, well, standards, the child has to meet other than their teacher's own impression of whether they're 'working towards level three' or something similar.
Yet the minister says the government will use it:
"...to know across the system where more precisely do we need to be investing resources in order to grow learner achievement".
So the government's going to be using this currently unreliable data to determine where to invest millions? Or is Parata saying that the data will only be of use in five years and the government won't use it to determine funding until 2017?
Hmmm. What about the parents? Can parents use the data to compare schools? Parata was very clear on that, at least for a moment or two.
"For the purposes of comparing schools, it is not reliable".
Parata says for such comparisons you need data that's consistent between schools, and that's at least a year away. Although a full set of reliable data is five years away, remember.
And then you'll be able to compare schools, right?
"Well, the purpose of National Standards is actually to raise learner achievement in the classroom and within the kids in that classroom".
So it's not about comparing schools. She doesn't really want league tables. But wait! She also says:
"I think it's totally appropriate for parents when they're thinking about their schools not only to visit the schools, not only to know whether they like the look of the schools and the sports field, not only to understand what the arts and social studies programme is. I think it's totally appropriate that we include achievement data".
So this new achievement data is a way for parents to choose a school by, um, presumably, well, comparing it with data from other schools.
At which point I'm about to flunk this class. But using my comprehension skills, let me see if I get it. Here goes...
So Parata says you can rely on what the schools say about themselves now, but you won't be able to compare schools reliably for five years, not that she wants you to do that because the data is about learner achievement not ranking schools, but go ahead anyway and use the learner achievement data now alongside other information to choose a school because that's useful and while the data is currently variable and unreliable the ministry can still aggregate it and the government can quote from it because it's useful in that it tells us exactly what every other bit of research has been telling us for at least a decade, and at the same time the government will use this dodgy data to judge the health of the whole system and combat the tail that urgently needs to be addressed... or it might wait five years until the data's reliable.
Phew, thank goodness I was able to get that straight. For a minute there I thought this was turning into a tangled mess.