Wednesday, May 4, 2016


Junior students receiving progress awards at term 1 Achievement Assembly.
Kirsty Johnston from the New Zealand Herald has been doing a series of investigative pieces on Primary Schools and the issues related to the achievement of children.

The whole series is available online at:

I have been following this investigation with great interest, as it has been taking a hard look at how and why children at primary school achieve or don't achieve. The spotlight is on National Standards, whose introduction was a political initiative, designed to raise achievement.

One of the most strident objections to National Standards is that the starting point for children at their enrolment point varies enormously in terms of what they are already capable of, particularly in their language development. Kirsty Johnston's feature highlights the fact that while some children can barely count to five when they start school, or have never held a pencil, they can speak another language, such as Samoan or Tongan. This lag in early school expectations, which doesn't correlate to intelligence, follows many children throughout their eight years of primary (or primary and intermediate) education, and through into secondary school.

The objection focusses on the fact that National Standards do not measure  how far a child has progressed in their learning from their starting point. These children arrive at secondary school, with the expectation that by the end of Year 10, they will be capable of commencing their first year of NCEA. The political mandate is centred around students achieving NCEA Level 2 by the time they turn 18. This is irrespective of the ability level  at which they started their secondary schooling. The philosophy behind National Standards dooms many children to failure well before they arrive at secondary school, as they are being measured according to their ability to reach an established standard of academic competence, not how far they have progressed in their learning from where they started.  NCEA follows the same pattern.

Once students reach secondary school, their academic achievement contributes to the overall profile of NCEA results, which are published nationally. In the eyes of the community, the school's reputation is determined by these published results. Naturally, every school works extremely hard to support students achieving to the highest level. Students are challenged to work to the best of their ability to achieve, irrespective of the point at which they started. Fundamentally, many students whose primary school experience was one of never reaching the standard, and being categorised as failures in the particular criteria which are being measured, will have a tough time in overcoming this stigma at secondary school. During my time as a secondary school principal, I have been inspired by many outstanding teachers who have encouraged and challenged students to be successful, and to achieve to a high level, despite this stigma. I have likewise been inspired by the students whose sucess flies in the face of the expectations of failure, which National Standards have reinforced.


  1. Individual school NS and NCEA results not only don't recognise that children start at different places, learn at different rates or measure value added, they also don't measure like for like, as cohorts of students change due to transience which affects some schools more than others.
    A further distortion of results occurs when schools omit some students from the reporting of their statistics. With NS, schools are expected to include all students who have completed their first 40 weeks of schooling and all others who are enrolled as at 1st November, but there is no mechanism by which the rolls are checked for all applicable students being included. With NCEA, there are two types of reporting: roll-based and participation-based. The roll-based data includes all students on the school's roll as at 1 July, whereas the participation data includes only those students entered into National Qualifications. The latter is more positive data as it excludes non-entrants from the total and you can imagine how the two sets of results for the same school could look very different.
    Any set of achievement data is just numbers on a page. It is first necessary to understand how these numbers are calculated and which students form the cohort. But the more important understanding is that for every student that contributes to the overall number, there is an individual story of learning and achievement.

  2. Thanks for your great contribution to this discussion Angela.