In the lead up to the general election there has been considerable discussion about measurement, standards and targets in education. New Zealand is part of a growing international movement focused on measuring improvement and outcomes in education. However, as we argued in our white paper, From Tinkering to Intelligent Action, there is much contention surrounding what outcomes should be measured, the extent to which these outcomes can be measured accurately and reliably, and just what these outcomes tell us about education, student learning, and schools.

In this blog post I tease out some of the possibilities and potential pitfalls that surround measurement and the employment of standards and targets in our schooling system.

We cannot improve at scale what we cannot measure. Indeed, without some form of measurement it is very difficult to accurately assess whether particular actions or practices have led to change, or to determine next steps and plan future actions.

For teachers to be able to engage in improving student outcomes they require practical measures, which enable them to readily assess students’ learning progress, to identify students that require additional support. Teachers also must know how to adapt their teaching and learning strategies in order to better support their students. Measurement, in this conception, is focused on how teachers can maximise their impact for every student.

This approach to measurement is increasingly at risk by what the educational philosopher Gert Biesta terms normative validity. That is, whether we are indeed ‘measuring what we value, or whether we are just measuring what we can easily measure and thus end up valuing what we (can) measure’.1 For example, there now exist valid and reliable tools for assessing student’ achievement and progress in mathematics and reading. While nearly everyone would agree that it is important for all young people to leave school literate and numerate, considerably fewer would suggest that this is all that we want from our school system. However, the current implementation of National Standards has caused a number of educators to voice concern at the increasing pressure to focus on mathematics and literacy, at the expense of a more holistic curriculum.

Measures and measurement are at particular risk of ill-use and corruption when they are linked to targets. Campbell’s Law suggests that when a measure becomes a target or part of high stakes accountability assessment, it ceases to be an effective measure. That’s because measures connected to accountability targets can create unanticipated incentives, and in the schooling context often drive behaviour and actions that are not aligned to the best interests of the students.

The push to get more students to achieve NCEA Levels 2 and 3 has led to greater numbers of students achieving the qualifications. While this is a positive outcome, it is accompanied by reports of schools directing students into non-academic subjects. Data released by NZQA earlier this year showed a growing gap between the proportion of st

udents achieving Level 3 and those gaining UE, with 96% of the students who achieved Level 3 but not UE not meeting the three subject requirement (gaining 14 credits in each of three university-approved subjects).2 This aligns with data from the Starpath project run by The University of Auckland, which indicate that in some schools students, particularly Maori and Pasifika, are directed into non-university NCEA subjects.3

Measurement can be a powerful tool for supporting ongoing improvement in schools. It has the potential to inform understanding about students’ learning and progress, to enable the identification of what is working, for whom and in what contexts and to indicate where further intervention might be needed, and to direct next steps and future actions. However, ultimately the impact of measurement relies on the quality of the measures being employed and the purposes to which those measures are put. While it is essential that teachers and schools use data and evidence to inform teaching and decision making, it also is imperative that we do not create a system that (inadvertently) narrows the curriculum, limits opportunities, or subjects children to increasing levels of high-stakes testing.

1 Biesta, G. (2009). Good education in an age of measurement: on the need to reconnect with the question of purpose in education. Education Assessment Evaluation Association, 21, 33-46.