TOP Education Policy; How to Reduce Testing But Still Make Sure Everyone Leaves School With a Qualification

We’ve had a lot of questions about how TOP’s policy on testing would work in practice for National Standards and NCEA.

TOP’s Education Policy is committed to reducing the amount of testing in our primary and secondary education system. Testing has little bearing on student performance and takes up valuable time that could be used for learning. Besides, the most important skills in the 21st Century are soft skills like communication, creativity, collaboration and critical thinking, which are not amenable to traditional testing. 

The priority for new spending has to be ensuring Early Childhood Education (ECE) is free, full time and high quality. This is the best way to ensure that our children get the best start in life for the 21st Century, as this is where many soft skills are learnt. It is also the best way to close the gaps between rich and poor. TOP has already announced this policy and how it will be funded.

Let’s look at primary and secondary testing in turn.

Primary - National Standards

First, we have to acknowledge that some schools and parents have found National Standards useful in providing a template for them to assess progress. So in our view scrapping it entirely would be premature; we prefer to reform it and take it from there.

There are many problems with National Standards as it stands. It takes up a lot of time for both students and teachers, time that could be spent learning. It is not an objective test so it is open to manipulation by the teachers involved. The results are published and so used by parents to judge the ‘quality’ of a school when in fact it is a far better measure of the background of the children attending the school. Finally it can be damaging to children to assess and label them when they are young; they are still developing in bursts and often don’t conform to a ‘standard’.

If we really want to assess primary school or teacher performance we really need to adopt a ‘value added’ testing system. This looks at the progress children make, and so adjusts for their different starting position. However this is complex, expensive and still is unlikely to work in poor areas with high transience. And ultimately, any test can only cover a narrow range of what we want to teach children. That is why ‘teaching to the test’ can be so damaging.

The upshot is that we think National Standards should be delayed until Year 6, and school results should not be published publicly.

Secondary – NCEA

At the moment we assess students for 3 qualifications in 3 consecutive years. Few countries in the world have this level of assessment over that timeframe. The drawbacks of too much assessment are the same as those for primary schools; it takes up valuable teaching and learning time and can only test a portion of what students really need to learn.

Even worse, when you make the test ‘high stakes’ for the student (it is a qualification) and the teacher or school (by publishing the results), you get all sorts of perverse outcomes. Teachers start ‘teaching to the test’ rather than teaching what the students need to learn, or are interested in. Students fixate on achieving credits rather than the joy of learning for the sake of it. Teachers and students start changing their behaviour to chase easy marks rather than following their passion. Marks rise, but ultimately skills suffer.

Obviously students still need to leave school with some form of qualification. But do they need three? No they don’t, they only ever make use of the highest qualification that they have. So why not require that schools ensure all students leave with a qualification?

That doesn’t mean a student leaves it all to the last year. They can spread out their efforts over their school career, collecting credits much as people do at University. Teachers and students will be freed up to do what NCEA was supposed to do – allow the qualification to fit around the learning rather than the other way around.

Sure, if a student doesn’t know their passion and wants to keep their options open they can do the 3 years of assessments just as they do now. But if a student knows what inspires them, they can focus on that and collect credits as a by-product of pursuing their bigger goals. Subjects could blur. Students could work on projects that would be a far greater testament to their time at school than any paper qualification.

More choice. More freedom. More learning. What is not to like?