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Student achievement argument misses the target

The Post Primary Teachers’ Association seems to be rather confused about what they expect from the education sector lately, particularly with reference to measuring performance.

Earlier this week, the union welcomed the news of an Auckland school that recently dropped international secondary school exams.  The union stated that these exams “undermine our home grown educational credentials for school leavers” and that they should be banned in favour of our national assessments.

PPTA will present its views in a paper on NCEA at their annual conference late next week. Skimming through this paper left me more confused than I’d started off. The union seems to present contradicting positions on NCEA from point to point.

To begin, it paints a positive view of NCEA when compared to international exams but in the same breath, shuns the national assessments as credible measures of educational potential.

PPTA “blames the Government for using the NCEA to set national achievement targets as a measure of the return on educational investment”

Then at the very next turn, the union calls for the abolition of moderation of these same assessments.

“President Angela Roberts wants the NCEA not only shorn of a target but to have less “moderation”, the method by which the consistency of its marking is checked. She also wants to reduce the influence of universities on its required standards”.

One would have thought that moderating assessment judgements somewhat improves rather than diminishes objectivity and credibility.

It sounds to me like the union supported by their close ally, Labour’s Chris Hipkins who argues that the current government might be ‘obsessed with statistics’, do not want performance to be measured in any form or shape. Yet the two offer no clear alternatives.

I will not attempt to decode these positions. What seems clear to me is that the sector needs to get better at understanding what current targets tell us about achievement outcomes for each student.

There is one thing I did agree with though and it is with reference to the setting of the target for 85% of 18 year olds attaining NCEA Level 2 or equivalent by 2017. Although I think PPTA takes it too far when it says that “numerical achievement targets have no place in standards-based assessment systems, I agree that the way the targets were introduced “create perverse incentives that prevent teachers from looking for the best possible ways for their students to achieve their potential”.  This may as a result put teachers under increasing pressure to find creative ways to reach a target that may not be relevant or appropriate for their students in the first place.

These sorts of goals set out of context, can indeed shift the focus away from ensuring that one; the target is indeed attainable for schools given their student profiles and two; that this target was better than any other target on the continuum that could have been chosen.

At the minimum whatever data is collected should be able to tell us that learning has indeed occurred as a result of the individual student having been in school. This is the beauty of value-added measures, which I have been reading about lately. These measures assess the ‘growth’ that teachers add to their students, controlling for students’ own profiles (prior achievement and family circumstances, for example).

The precursor for this is that work is done to ‘cluster’ students and schools with similar profiles to allow for fair comparisons. Lead education expert, John Hattie gave this a go over a decade ago in his ‘Schools like mine’ paper, yet schools continue to be pitted against each other along ‘national averages’, with no regard to context.  I did find a neat example of how Campbell Bay School uses value-added measures whilst still complying with government requirements.

If the education system continues to set arbitrary goals on which to measure student achievement, we will continue to miss the mark.

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