National Standards and Neanderthals – “They will know what is required …” – Part II

Learning all about National Standards

Learning all about National Standards in Five Easy Steps

[Apologies, but this post is now in three parts, not just two – this is Part II. Part III should be up by the time you read this.]

Who’s afraid of National Standards?

In Part I of this post, I argued that National Standards are best seen in the context of the history of the modern education system. Looked at from that perspective, I claimed, National Standards are just the current manifestation of the core purpose of modern education – the attempt to control and direct the learning of children and ‘fit’ them to the economic and social system.

They are a significant further step towards the control of learning rather than its liberation.

But how valid is that claim? Are National Standards really that concerning? Aren’t they just a useful means to help children reach their potential in our society?

Certainly, if National Standards have any justification it has to be that they will help children – aged five to twelve years old – to learn.

There’s good reasons, though, to think that they’ll achieve the opposite, sometimes in perverse ways. All those reasons revolve around the directive pedagogy that sits like a great, motivation-sucking bog at the base of National Standards.

Not that you could tell that there was anything to worry about from the feel good – sometimes thickly-sweet – words that permeate the official documentation about National Standards. That sticky covering has to be removed step-by-step to understand just what the standards are likely to ‘achieve’.

To start with, then, there are quite a few questions that need asking- and answering – just to prepare the ground. Only after they’ve been answered can the standards’ educational worth be laid bare and compared to what is known about how people learn.

  • What are National Standards?
  • What is their claimed purpose?
  • What do National Standards assume about the process of learning?
  • How are teachers meant to make judgments (assessments) of children’s ‘learning’ against the standards?
  • What are children meant to make of these judgments (assessments)?

A good place to start to answer those questions is (presumably) the information on National Standards from the Ministry of Education.

It’s a little bit complicated (i.e., extraordinarily complicated) to navigate around the information on the various websites so just how far down the labyrinthine rabbit hole you wish to go, I’ll leave to you. The two main sites (but by no means only ones) are the Ministry of Education website (Parents section is here) and the New Zealand Curriculum Online website.

Across these websites there’s information for parents and for ‘educators‘; there are resources for ‘training’ teachers in how to implement National Standards; there’s a series of modules for teachers on how to link the New Zealand Curriculum, National Standards and teaching practice; there are fact sheets on National Standards; there are ‘good news’ puff pieces on how ‘successful’ the whole process is (the last of these stories was in October, 2011 – coinciding with the end of the push to get schools to participate en masse – and was heroically titled ‘National Standards: A Journey of Continual Improvement‘); and there is a lot more.

So what does all of this information tell us about the answers to the questions above?

What are National Standards?

Well, Mary Chamberlain (Group Manager, Curriculum Teaching and Learning – Design) is keen to emphasise that National Standards are not norms or criteria. As she says,

Students’ learning and achievement can be assessed in relation to norms, criteria or standards. All are useful for different purposes.

Norm-referenced assessment shows how students are achieving compared to others of the same age group at a given point in time. Such tests usually provide results in percentiles or stanines.
Criterion-referenced assessment shows what students can or can’t do in relation to a list of tasks or skills. Teachers’ judgments are about whether the student has achieved each skill or task. When writing for example, a student may be able to succeed at each task or skill but still not be able to write a compelling piece which meets the needs of an audience.

Saying that ‘we’ ( the government and Ministry) have learned from overseas practice and to acknowledge criticisms about the dangers of ‘teaching to the test’ and tick-box learning is a clever move. It neatly disarms – rhetorically, rather than in practice (I’ll come back to this point) – such criticisms by claiming, simply, that National Standards are just not like that.

OK, so that’s what the standards aren’t. What are they?

Standards-referenced assessment shows what a student can do in relation to broad descriptions, supported by exemplars of expected achievement. The descriptions are broader than criteria. Each standard has a number of components that students need to bring together to achieve the standard. Teachers’ judgments are an ‘on-balance judgment’ on the work as a whole.

Basically, then, a standard is a specification of something a child is expected to be able to do (with texts or numbers) each year, progressively. What they are expected to do each year is, first, described in words and, second, illustrated with an example. (See, that wasn’t so hard, was it?). And, according to Ms Chamberlain, achieving the standard is an outcome of a holistic assessment of aptitude. Sounds good.

If you look through the standards for reading and writing and mathematics (available to download on this page) you will indeed see these “broad descriptions” and a number of “exemplars [illustrations] of expected achievement“, one for each year.

For now, it’s worth highlighting that the combination of ‘broad’ (vague?) description, illustrative examples and supposed holistic assessment shifts a considerable burden of judgment onto the teacher for implementation of the standards. (Once again, I’ll return to this point.)

If that’s what National Standards are, why have they been introduced?

What is their claimed purpose?

This is where it starts to get ‘sticky’ – and perverse.

The ‘big picture’ purpose is the ‘long tail’, the “[n]early one in five of our young people [who] leave school without the skills and qualifications they need to succeed” as Anne Tolley, then Minister of Education, pointed out in a National Standards Information for Schools pamphlet (downloadable here).

Mary Chamberlain, in the first of this series of short videos, put it even more plainly:

when we compare ourselves with the other high performing countries we have got the longest tail of underachievement and the kinds of children who are in that tail of underachievement pose some problems for us as well. They tell us that we are not serving the needs of our Māori and Pasifika students. There are numbers of those students in the high performing, but the system is not actually helping them in the same way as it’s helping all the other students, because they’re over represented in that tail. We’ve also got an issue in sheer numbers, it’s the number of Pakeha boys in that tail.

The ‘tail’ is the issue – specifically, the performance of Maori and Pasifika children, and Pakeha boys. Apparently, National Standards will improve the performance of these groups.


It will do this through the fortuitous convergence of two principal processes: Through how the teachers make judgments (assessments) of children’s achievement against the standards; and, through the children realising that the standards represent what they need to know and then working out – with the teacher and using the teacher’s judgments (assessments) of ‘where they are at‘ – just what they need to do next to achieve them or to achieve the next standard.

Simple: Here’s your goal; here’s ‘where you are at’; this is what you need to do to get from ‘where you are at’ to the goal. Agree? Ready to ‘own your own learning’?

One central assumption here seems to be that it doesn’t matter at all who sets the goal. That’s telling.

Which leads to the question of what educational theory lies beneath National Standards.

What do National Standards assume about the process of learning?

Underpinning National Standards and the New Zealand Curriculum is an explicit pedagogy.

The ‘Effective Pedagogy‘ underpinning the New Zealand Curriculum is particularly revealing. That pedagogy, it is claimed, is based upon “extensive, well-documented evidence about the kinds of teaching approaches that consistently have a positive impact on student learning“.

It doesn’t specify if this evidence is based upon educational systems that are compulsory and classroom-based but presumably it is, given that it is being applied in such settings. If so, it tells us little about evidence based upon research outside of such settings where learning can happen guided only by the curiosity of the child (or adult). That is, it passes by the wealth of evidence about the everyday, autonomous, often play-based learning that children have always done as human beings.

In short, it tells us about effective instruction techniques towards pre-determined performance rather than the process of human learning.

Here’s an interesting passage from the ‘Effective Pedagogy’ document:

Enhancing the relevance of new learning

Students learn most effectively when they understand what they are learning, why they are learning it, and how they will be able to use their new learning. Effective teachers stimulate the curiosity of their studentsrequire them to search for relevant information and ideas, and challenge them to use or apply what they discover in new contexts or in new ways. They look for opportunities to involve students directly in decisions relating to their own learning. This encourages them to see what they are doing as relevant and to take greater ownership of their own learning.

Read that paragraph a couple of times. When I did, I ended up bolding just about all of it (as you can see).

There’s something that is eerily absent in amongst this host of words that seem to be saying everything positive about learning.

The unacknowledged spirit floating invisibly behind this avalanche of worthy educational virtues is the hollow spectre of external control of the learning process.

Look at the first sentence in that paragraph. The one thing not mentioned about how students (i.e., children) “learn most effectively” is their autonomy and, its close relative, intrinsic motivation. This is a remarkable absence, given how the research on learning emphasises just these characteristics of effective learning.

These two vital ingredients for ‘effective’ or ‘deep’ learning – as Peter Gray (2013) calls it – cannot be mentioned for a very simple reason: ‘education’ has to happen irrespective of their (initial) presence or absence.

To be honest, they’re not completely forgotten in this pedagogy.

To fill this immense omission from the learning process, teachers are in effect called upon to substitute for it.

Hence, it is the teachers who must “stimulate the curiosity of their students“, “require them to search for relevant information“, “challenge them to use or apply what they discover in new contexts or in new ways“,  “look for opportunities to involve students directly in decisions relating to their own learning“, “encourage them to see what they are doing as relevant” and “to take greater ownership of their own learning“. 

Once teachers have managed to enact this series of miracles on the mixed bag of reluctant, attentive, bemused, conscientious and often unmotivated children in their classes it will almost be as if autonomy and intrinsic motivation had been there all along in the ‘educational’ process.

If teachers don’t work these miracles then, clearly, it’s a problem with them and their teaching. The fact that it might actually be a problem with the fundamentally coercive pedagogy is a possibility too impolite to voice – at least in Ministry of Education documentation.

And this is where National Standards enter the picture. They formalise this coercive pedagogy into year-by-year, bite-size chunks. Like the coloured bars that get filled when installing software on a computer, National Standards supposedly tell teachers, parents and children how quickly the educational software is loading.

That might sound as if the children are passive in the process. But, apparently, this couldn’t be further from the truth. It is central to the approach that children will be active learners – at least once the pedagogy has worked its magic.

On this point, the ‘Expectations’ section of the ‘Effective Literacies‘ page on the Ministry of Education website makes for further interesting, if somewhat Orwellian, reading,

The National Standards make explicit the levels of reading and writing expertise that students are expected to reach. They are high but attainable standards based on consistent expectations for learning. The standards will enable students, as well as their teachers, families, and whānau, to develop a better understanding of the kinds of reading and writing that are required at each step of their learning pathway [entirely paved by subject experts].

This understanding will help students to become active and autonomous as they engage with texts. They will know what is required, and so they will be able to select and use texts to meet their own strengths, interests, and learning needs. Knowing what is required empowers students to make connections between what they already know and what they need to do in order to continue making progress.

It is hard to know quite what to say in the face of such rhetorical gymnastics. [That’s one reason I extracted the phrase highlighted in red for the sub-title of this post.]

Students, apparently, are being helped to “become active and autonomous” by virtue of them knowing “what is required“.

Given that children are “active and autonomous” learners long before they so much as come within sniffing distance of a school, it is surprising that the thinking behind National Standards seems to assume that these are skills that are lacking and, so, must be nurtured by the educational system.

Of course, they aren’t lacking. But, by the time children have been in the educational system for a few years they may be in quite short supply – certainly for the kinds of ‘learning’ that schools, via National Standards, now require.

The kind of “active and autonomous” learning referred to here is clearly meant to be highly constrained and subordinate to the specifications of those in charge of their education – which is, obviously, not the “active and autonomous” students themselves.

Instead, educators need to track ‘progress’ and ‘achievement’, via National Standards, in order to aid students  to become autonomous learners of what is required. Assessment – regular, systematic and measured against standards not derived by the students themselves – is the means to this end.

And assessment, ‘naturally’, requires teachers to make judgments.

How are teachers meant to make judgments of children’s ‘learning’ against the standards?

The Ministry of Education has provided a pamphlet for parents about National Standards and why they are being implemented. The pamphlet highlights for parents the uses to which teachers will (or are meant to) put National Standards:

  • plan and teach what your child needs to learn in reading, writing and maths across all curriculum subjects
  • work out where your child is at
  • work out your child’s next learning steps and set goals for learning, together with you and your child
  • report clearly at least twice a year to you about your child’s progress and achievement in relation to the standards.

It’s clear from these points that the teachers’ judgments about children’s progress in relation to National Standards are seen as vital to the whole educational process. They determine the teaching that happens, the ‘next learning steps’ laid out and the content of reports to parents about their children’s learning.

So how do teachers make the judgments?

Back to Mary Chamberlain:

When a teacher makes a judgment about student progress and achievement relative to the standards they are making an overall teacher judgment (OTJ) about the quality of the work. They are making a judgment not only about the discrete knowledge and skills a student has learnt [which is the concern in assessment by criteria mentioned earlier], but about what students can do with what they have learnt [supposedly encompassed by the ‘broad descriptions’ in the National Standards] to successfully meet complex demands across a range of real life situations.

Teachers’ judgments are supported by:
  • ongoing daily interactions with students
  • how students’ work compares to exemplars (examples of the quality of work required to meet each standard)
  • results from assessment tools, tasks and activities.

There’s more detail about Overall Teacher Judgments (OTJs) in this link.

As is explained there, OTJs involve processes of “confirming dependability [through triangulation of information]”, “moderation [by other teachers]” and “student participation“. [The last process – ‘student participation’ – is returned to in the next section].

The OTJs, ultimately, are about whether or not what the student can do aligns with the standard deemed appropriate for their year level in the system (i.e., is ‘at the standard’):

If the balance of evidence shows the student’s achievement is:

  • in a year level above a National Standard, the student’s achievement will be described as above the National Standard
  • predominantly meeting the expectations at a year level, the student’s achievement will be described as at the National Standard
  • not achieving at a National Standard, but achieving closer to the National Standard immediately below, the student’s achievement will be described as below the National Standard
  • more than one year below a National Standard, the student’s achievement will be described as well below the National Standard.

In amongst all of this holistic determination of achievement through OTJs, what is the role of tests and other ‘norm- or externally-referenced assessment tools’?

As most people know, this is a controversial point as it potentially opens National Standards to criticisms of providing an incentive for schools to ‘teach to the test’. It’s also why, as discussed above, Mary Chamberlain was keen to differentiate the standards from norm-referenced or criterion-based assessment.

But, in practice, just how different are National Standards from these other two approaches to learning and assessment?

The Fact Sheet on ‘The Role of Formal Assessment Tools‘ provides considerable insight into this question. First, it reiterates that it “is a well accepted assessment principle that no one single source of information can provide an unequivocally accurate summary of a student’s achievement“.

Second, it acknowledges that adopting a standardised assessment tool,

has the associated risk of inadvertently promoting the management of the appearance of achievement and progress, rather than promoting authentic teaching approaches which rely on a strong learner focus and quality professional judgment.

That’s reassuring. After all, no-one would want merely “the appearance of achievement and progress” (i.e., ‘teaching to the test’). Yet, there are other comments about the assessment process and use of norm-referenced tools that are less reassuring about whether or not this will be avoided in the case of National Standards.

At the bottom of the same Fact Sheet there’s a paragraph titled “Will teachers be required to use norm-referenced assessment tools?“. Within it a certain tension emerges:

Although there is no legislated requirement to use any specific assessment tools, NAG [National Administration Guidelines] 1 includes a requirement that schools, through a range of assessment practices, gather information that is sufficiently comprehensive to enable the progress and achievement of students to be evaluated.

Research in assessment indicates that assessment information should be drawn from a comprehensive range of diverse sources including at least one norm-referenced or externally-referenced tool. Such tools (tests, tasks, reading series, other scenarios such as diagnostic interviews), if used appropriately, will provide an external reference point against which teachers can weigh up their professional judgment across a range of assessment information in order to reach an overall teacher judgment (OTJ) that is valid and defensible.

‘Valid and defensible’? Suddenly, there is the strong implication that the much-lauded OTJs have to be valid and defensible in relation to an “external reference point“.

Further, there is apparently a “range of well established norm-referenced or externally-referenced” tools available in New Zealand and many schools are using them already “because they recognise the contribution these tools make to good assessment practice“.

And, the Ministry is being very helpful in “actively developing an ongoing programme to align these tools to the standards“.

Imagine this scenario: Two schools report on National Standards to the Ministry. One bases its report on the results of implementing one of these “well established norm-referenced or externally-referenced” tools, but mentions little else about how the OTJs underpinning the statistics were derived. The other mentions a range of assessment processes but explicitly states that it did not use any norm-referenced or externally-referenced tests in coming up with the OTJs.

Which report do you think the Ministry might have some ‘concerns’ over?

Perhaps I’m being unkind.

You can ‘Find a School‘ and access its 2011 National Standards report to see what they look like. Here’s two examples (here and here) of a 2011 school report on pupils’ achievement in relation to National Standards (chosen for no other reason than that they are close to my home).

What the reports show are the ‘bare facts’ of the National Standards reporting – Tables of raw numbers and percentages at each year level of pupils who are at various levels in relation to the relevant standard for that year (in writing, reading and mathematics) along with variable amounts of commentary about ‘target groups’ of pupils who need ‘support’ to achieve the standards and other monitoring processes to be adopted, etc..

Behind the fine words in the Ministry documentation about multiple sources of information, multiple processes informing the OTJs, etc. what we are left with are these raw numbers and percentages of children (divided by ethnicity or gender or ESOL or whatever) who are ‘above’, ‘at’, ‘below’ or ‘well below’ National Standards.

Even the commentaries often amount to little more than stating that ‘target groups’ of ‘at risk’ learners have been identified from the data and how further monitoring of these groups will be a priority. Sometimes implementation of certain programmes or use of ‘advisors’ to help with these groups is mentioned.

At the sad heart of these numbers are individual children, aged five to twelve, who – they and their parents have been told – are ‘below’ or ‘well below’ National Standards (in reading, writing or mathematics).

Cue parental anxiety. Cue pressure on the teacher. Cue a child feeling at the mercy of a self-styled benevolent process to ‘accelerate’ his or her ‘progress’ and ‘achievement’ towards the Holy Grail of being ‘at’ National Standards – by the end of the next year.

Which brings me to the children.

What are children meant to make of these judgments (assessments)?

Officially, children are only meant to make good things of these judgments – and it is presumably incumbent on the teachers to ensure that only such good consequences of applying National Standards will arise.

Remember, the child is very much meant to be ‘in’ on the process of making these assessments. This will enable them, ultimately, to ‘own’ their own learning – or something. The documentation is very firm on the importance of student participation in these OTJs.

The Fact Sheet on ‘Assessment for learning‘, for example, argues that “[w]hen students know what their assessment results mean, they are better able to identify their own strengths and needs, and recognise ‘Where to next?’” By doing this they can “take more control of their own learning and become more effective and independent learners“. (This is all consistent with the ‘Effective Pedagogy’ we met earlier.)

In fact, this ‘student participation’ in their own assessment (via the discussions with teachers that inform the OTJs) is so important that it is apparently necessary to follow a process of “building students’ assessment capability“. As the Fact Sheet continues,

Evidence suggests that when students are able to monitor their own work, they are more likely to make progress. To do this well, they need to understand:

  • what high quality work looks like (helped by examining examples and models of quality work)
  • what criteria define quality work (helped by participation in developing learning goals and assessment criteria)
  • how to compare and evaluate their own work against criteria (helped by peer and self-assessment).

In other words, an important part of the learning process, so the story goes, is to learn how to assess yourself against the National Standards. This is the case because the standards just are “what high quality work looks like“.

Just like the teacher, you – the child – need to internalise the standards and guide your ‘learning’ by them.

Learning outside the framework of those standards is presumably not really learning at all and simply is a distraction from the learning that is required. Children must come to understand that real learning involves performing for others and meeting the expectations of others.

As I emphasised in the first part of this post, given the historical context of the development of the modern education system that shouldn’t be a surprise. In our society – and in many of its contemporaries and predecessors – the official, institutionalised definition of learning is compliance.

Compliance is the educational air we breathe to the point where it is – almost literally – unthinkable for most people that learning involves anything else. After all, how would anyone ever know that they have learnt anything if there is no-one to judge that they have indeed learnt something?

When compliance is the measure of learning the learner is always – necessarily – subordinated. They are subordinated to what is required of them – what they need to know.

We’ve come a long way since the notion of learning that predominated in the lives of hunter-gatherer children. Then, children learnt through self-directed encounters with the world. It was their task, largely through almost endless play, to discover and perfect the knowledge and skills useful to survive, even thrive.

They practiced those skills and absorbed that knowledge with minimal, if any, social coercion. This was possible because the everyday world of the hunter-gatherer was thoroughly permeated with strong cues (and clues) about what was ‘required’ (i.e., useful) knowledge and skills. With autonomy and curiosity as native instincts, children mastered a massive range of adaptive skills and knowledge about their world simply through interacting with it.

It’s worth reiterating that the way of life of a hunter-gatherer was, and is, skill and knowledge intensive. Compared with what was required of individuals then, today most people get by on far fewer skills and far less knowledge – and certainly a far smaller proportion of their culture’s knowledge (Gray, 2013, p. 30):

It would be a mistake to assume that because hunter-gatherer cultures are ‘simpler’ than ours, children in those cultures have less to learn than do our children. The hunting-and-gathering way of life is extra-ordinarily knowledge- and skill-intensive, and because of the relative absence of occupational specialisation, each child has to acquire essentially the whole culture, or at least that part of it appropriate to his or her gender.

One of the great ironies of modern, compulsory education is that it is because we have less to learn than did hunter-gatherers that we have to be made to comply with what is required in our learning.

It’s time to dismantle the educational worth of National Standards.

[To be continued …]

Update: For those who were quick to read this post you will have noticed that I had ‘Part III’ included here. My intention was to split it. I have done that and so deleted that part of the post from here. It is now its own post – Part III.


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3 Responses to National Standards and Neanderthals – “They will know what is required …” – Part II

  1. Mel says:

    Wow! This is one of the most cogent and perceptive articles I have read on the National Standards.

    We have recently had an ERO visit. The ERO officers were concerned that our students did not know where they were in relation to the National standard – i.e. my name is x and I am well below. My heart cried inside. I want all the children in my class to see themselves as learners and have discovered that a sense of self efficacy is so important in improving their motivation. When students think they are capable they act as if they are. Measurement against others in the class is demotivating to all but those at the top of the scale.

    When children see themselves as a learner and when they have ‘some’ choice and autonomy over what and how they learn, (within current constraints) – students are motivated and passionate. When asked for what they ‘want’ (what’s hot and what’s not) – most of the students in the class seek artistic and creative ways as a medium for their learning and expression of their learning.

    Thank you for saying so articulately what so many teachers know.

    • Puddleglum says:

      Hi Mel,

      Thank you for your comment which I think grounds what I was trying to say in real experience. In the article on IQ, the authors, in their conclusion, point out that their results won’t come as a surprise to anyone who has actually had to administer IQ tests – motivation matters immensely. When it comes to day-to-day teaching, I imagine that stands out like a big, red flashing light.

      BTW, I think you may have read a version of the post which included what I have split off into a ‘Part III’. Obviously, you’ll notice that the Part III simply repeats, verbatim, what you would have already read.

      Apologies for that. My only excuse is that it was quite late when I posted the two posts.


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