Standardised testing could be compulsory in NZ primary schools – what can we learn from the past?

New Zealand primary and intermediate schools could soon be required to test children’s reading, writing and maths at least twice a year, using a standard template to report results to parents.

The proposal makes up a central part of the National Party’s education policy, but is it the best way to assess student progress? That could depend on how the policy is shaped – and what is done with the test results once they are collected.

But before education minister Erica Sanford completely revamps how students are assessed, she would be wise to learn from Aotearoa New Zealand’s recent history with primary assessment as well as overseas experience.

National standards past and present

Introduced by National in 2010, the National Standards set out levels all children should reach in reading, writing and maths in each of their first eight years of school.

The promise behind the policy was that it would raise achievement across primary and intermediate schools, a goal it failed to achieve.

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Primary teachers were quick to push back against National Standards, worried that students would be labelled based on performance rather than progress.

Some researchers warned the damage National Standards were doing to school cultures outweighed any gains, while others noted the standards failed to recognise neurodiverse learners and those with socioeconomic barriers.

Labour scrapped National Standards when it came to power in 2017.

Overseas experience of standardised testing

New Zealand will not be the first country to introduce mandatory standardised testing.

In 2007, Australia implemented the National Assessment Program: Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN), promising to increase transparency and accountability and improve teaching and learning by measuring school performance. The government of the day also said using national data would help disadvantaged school communities lift their performance.

A public website, MySchool, was created in 2008 to collate NAPLAN data. The website meant NAPLAN was evaluating not only students but also schools and teachers.

This approach drew critical commentary, especially given NAPLAN results were seen to indicate school quality.

The publication of results transformed NAPLAN into a high-stakes test, creating pressure and competition between schools.

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This pressure led to an intensification of rote learning and “teaching to the test”. English and maths squeezed out other subjects as the curriculum narrowed. And it reduced teacher morale, affected their wellbeing and eroded trust in their professional judgement.

In England, standardised assessment tests (SATs) have long been embedded in primary schools, with similar outcomes. A government website for the public sharing of results enables parents to “compare school and college performance”.

Using test data, successive governments have turned schooling into a marketplace for parents to choose “the best” school. Much like in Australia, this has effectively narrowed the curriculum to just English and maths.

This approach makes sense if you believe comparing schools will raise standards. But the data-driven approach to education is a highly questionable way of understanding child development. And given England’s teacher retention crisis, it does not seem to appeal to teachers.

Government should listen before changing the policy

Notably absent from National’s proposed education policy is an examination of the effects these changes might have on students.

One potential benefit of the policy is a possible improvement in students’ long-term retention of information cultivated by regular testing.

Additionally, student performance is influenced by how they feel, so earlier exposure to standardised testing provides an opportunity for students to gain experience in the process and to become more confident.

Without careful implementation, however, this could have the opposite effect. Negative experiences may result in test anxiety and students disengaging earlier in their education.

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To combat this, the performance stakes need to be minimised and clearly communicated. The results should not limit future learning opportunities.

Maximising student control over success will support positive test-taking experiences. This requires resources to be available for all students.

National’s election policy reads: “Students deserve equal opportunities to benefit from assessment, regardless of their location, school or teacher”. But there are known gender equity issues in testing. For example, research has shown girls have much lower self-confidence during maths testing than boys, impacting their overall performance in the subject.

A tool, not a stick

Most of the harmful consequences of standardisation are not caused by children sitting tests, but by what the tests come to mean about students, teachers, and schools.

The more they become an indicator of worth or value – because they change a school’s ranking, or label a child as “above” or “below” average – the more likely they are to cause fear, anxiety, risk avoidance, and box-ticking – from children and adults alike.

National has proposed using an existing assessment tool called e-asTTle that many teachers are familiar with. This is good news in terms of teacher workload and a big contrast to National Standards.

Unlike Australia or England, it seems the exact timing of tests will be up to schools, avoiding some of the frenzied collective panic of national test days.

It will be important that tests don’t become a stick to beat schools with. Test results must never be linked to school funding, ERO visit frequency, or official statements about school quality.

The ACT Party’s education policy is to publish schools’ test results online to create choice, a move that has had disastrous consequences overseas. This is not in the party’s coalition agreement with National – it is crucial it stays that way.

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