On the following pages, FishHead presents its annual survey of the region’s secondary schools’ NCEA results. This year we have tried to compare schools against their own previous year’s results rather than against each other, but even that is an exercise fraught with perils and pitfalls. Sadie Beckman explains why NCEA tables aren’t necessarily the best measure of a school’s success — but despite themselves, parents and politicians just can’t look away.
Education and politics have always been irretrievably tied up together.
Negotiating the minefield of rhetoric to understand how your child’s schooling actually works can take a pretty dedicated parent, and if you are at the point of choosing a secondary school then you need to be more savvy than ever.
The introduction of the National Certificate in Educational Achievement (NCEA) into secondary schools just over a decade ago brought with it a new way of looking at student performance. Many educationalists feel it is a more accurate picture of an individual child’s learning journey, based, as it is, on a series of standards that can be achieved throughout the school year and in a more personalised way than final exams with scaled grades. A comprehensive system of moderation for NCEA operated by the New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA) has, after some early teething problems, settled into a robust functionality.
However, the problems occur when government imperatives mean schools are forced to publish tables of performance data, which is then happily picked up and turned into pretty infographics by the media. In fact, you shouldn’t even look at the ones we’ve published in this issue, and making that point is exactly why we have published them.
At first glance they appear to be a handy tool for parents, students and other stakeholders. Tabs can be kept, subject strength areas identified, and increases or declines in achievement measured. Comparisons can be made with other schools as they are all ranked.
However, despite the undoubted appeal of such a straightforward interpretative tool, the slightest surface scratch of the statistics reveals a minefield of controversy and complication, and shows that they are neither straightforward nor interpretative.
Auckland University’s Associate Professor Peter O’Connor pointed out in a recent opinion piece that league tables are inherently flawed. “Schools are complex places that help students and communities succeed in multiple ways. A school’s position on a league table, therefore, tells parents little of the true value and worth a school contributes either to individual children or the communities they serve,” he said.
And he’s right. The tables don’t even separate out special needs students, or those with English as a second language. They have no scope for taking into account that they are pitting low-decile schools against high, and they can’t possibly even begin to reflect the social climate of a school’s community. Furthermore, has anybody thought about the pressure placed on the kids themselves through the knowledge that they will be constantly monitored in order to become part of a set of statistics visible to anyone online?
The decile issue seems to be the most obvious inequality in ranking schools against each other.
If you look at a child from a low socio-economic background attending a decile one school, survival might be the default setting of their family or background, with less emphasis placed on the value of educational achievement. Ranking that child, whose poverty may mean they are hungry, emotionally challenged or sick, against children from much higher socio-economic backgrounds attending a decile ten school and with a family where education has been prioritised, is not just unhelpful but harmful, because it perpetuates the image of the low-decile school being a poorer achiever, where in fact the difference may be greater in an individual child.
NCEA Information available to parents in sweeping and generalised league tables generated by modern assessment systems can become almost ‘anti-knowledge’ by contributing towards widely held misconceptions about teacher quality, school performance and student achievement, and prompting people to overlook wider context and instilling harmful misconceptions.
They can’t tell you if your child is, or will be, happy at a particular school, or whether the teachers they encounter will help them discover aspects of themselves that can’t be assessed, such as respect, pride and empathy.
It seems fairly obvious that straightforward league tables of NCEA results can’t possibly reflect the complex nature of a school, and therefore its real worth and what it actually contributes both to the students who attend it, or the community in which it is situated.
Even the financial data provided in league tables is worrying, as it doesn’t include fundraising and ‘voluntary’ donations. Schools with more affluent communities are therefore garnering far more financial support to transform into a teaching resource than those in poorer areas, and their achievement data may be affected because of it.
The requirement imposed by the current government for these league tables to be produced seems to be a remarkably short-sighted move that wilfully ignores expert opinion and research from other countries, as well as the protesting voices of principals, teachers, academics and educational professionals across the country.
So what can we do to get a more rounded picture of our schools, if these tables are so flawed?
For a start, check the school’s Education Review Office (ERO) report online and talk to parents of current students at the schools you want to find out about. Arrange a visit, and talk to the principal and teachers concerned in an uninhibited way and ask them any questions you have. Doing the legwork can make such a huge difference to your child’s future time there – achievement oriented or otherwise.
And most importantly of all? Talk to your children. They are the ones that all this is really about. Ask them if they are happy at their school, or like the look of a prospective one. Take them on the visits, listen to their concerns, support them unconditionally and evaluate your expectations of them constantly. Finally, remember that at the end of the day the single biggest impact on your child and their schooling career is actually you.