Do assessments kill learning?

The recent review of NCEA offers an opportunity to revisit assessment in schools.  At the moment, students gain excellence for memory retention, and ‘getting it right’ within a prescribed standard.  Knowledge is being ‘atomised’ so standards can be assessed separately.  Teaching has arguably become about the test.  Over-assessment has negatively impacted the wellbeing of learners and teachers.  Instead, TOP would like to see students thinking for themselves, critically questioning, being innovative and growing an interest for deeper learning.

Of course, measurement is important in education to know where we’re at and what we need to learn, both individually and as a system.  Even if PISA has been roundly criticised by education researchers across the world, the process has revealed slipping standards in New Zealand’s education system, particularly around bullying and student wellbeing.  However, rather than assessing for learning, our system sees assessment as learning.  Learning has become equated with completing assessment activities.

Yet, over 80 scholars from around the world signed a letter to the Director of PISA saying the “OECD’s narrow focus on standardised testing risks turning learning into drudgery and killing the joy of learning”.  Educators know that children do not fit neatly into the OECD’s expectations of ‘achievement’.  It creates compliant (or defiant) performers, rather than engaged, confident, curious learners.  Many have criticised the effectiveness of external examination

The standards-based approach to assessment emerged from the US in the 1970’s and swept around the world’s education systems.  Contradictory to political campaigning, many educators in the US are recognising the detrimental effect of over-assessment on learning. Over 1000 universities have eliminated entrance exams.  Instead, they assess students holistically, from grades to his/her extracurricular participation, community involvement, creativity, problem-solving, and self-discipline among others.  Students submit applications, including an essay and letters of recommendation.  Grades become part of the bigger story.

Finland, considered a world-leader in education, has no rankings, no comparisons or competition between students, schools or regions.  They have an end-of-schooling exam, but all other assessments are for the purpose of teaching, not for comparison purposes at any level.  The Finnish system also encourages students to develop self-assessment skills and their own benchmarks for progress.  Children take responsibility for their learning.  In doing so, they learn about their own learning processes, build self-awareness, and self-regulation.  Significant investment into New Zealand’s teaching profession is needed to follow Finland’s model of an evidence-based, collaborative teaching profession.  So in the meantime, we’re relying on structured assessments to ensure some level of student competence takes place, to the detriment of their deeper learning

Concerningly, the Ministry is returning to a pass-fail, win-lose approach to education in literacy and numeracy. Yes, sweeping changes are needed in the way both literacy and numeracy are taught in schools, as they both need to be taught in a structured way.  But creating a compulsory set of standards, without which students can’t get their NCEA qualification, could do more harm than good.  You don’t make a pig fatter by weighing it.

Unit standards should fundamentally be about recognising and encouraging the kind of learning that really matters.  They should be designed to engage and motivate students, and they should be fun to teach.  They should weave together valuable discipline knowledge with key competencies. Our assessment approaches should complement these aims.  Given the disruption of the global pandemic and intermittent lockdowns, should we continue to value what is measured, or is this our chance to measure what is valued?

We’re living in unprecedented times and students are naturally experiencing anxiety and pressure.  So, wouldn’t it be prudent to focus on social / emotional learning, rather than testing cognitive abilities, for a while?  We want children, adolescents and adults to enjoy learning throughout their lives.  Babies and toddlers already love learning, because they’re innately curious.  Yet, many of us have lost that love of learning and curiosity.  How can we get it back?  Not through endless testing and assessment through schooling, that’s for sure.

New Zealand’s secondary schooling system ‘kills’ learning for students, by valuing accreditation, prescription and compliance over independent thinking, curiosity and creativity.  TOP wants Minister Hipkins to start creating a system that values secondary schools as places of learning, not as accreditation institutions.

It’s never too late to ignite curiosity.  If not now, then when?


This blog should be read in conjunction with Should NZ ditch exams and assessments?


By Dr Naomi Pocock (Education & Child Development Spokesperson for The Opportunities Party)

TOP’s other education blogs include:

Should media give voice to evidence-less policy ideas in education? 

Outdoor classrooms – why do it, and how?

TOP’s Approach to Disability & Education

Is reading being corrupted in NZ?

TOP's take on the last 3 years of Education in NZ

Education & Identity - Crucial For Māori Student Success

Post-Covid-19 ECE in NZ – what could it look like?

ECE budget 2020. A drop in an ocean of need.

Does the Ministry of Education Even Understand Children?

How can we fix education in New Zealand?

Will participation in early childhood education actually reduce future crime in NZ?

Nature play in schools – A mainstream option?

National & Labour – Both tinkering around the edges of education

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  • Naomi Pocock
    published this page in Blog 2021-11-14 10:21:28 +1300