The Slap of National Standards; How National Standards Made Me Cry.

My son attends a special school, in both senses of the word: It is for special needs students, and it is an amazing school in its own right, staffed by caring, dedicated, highly trained teachers and therapists. I love his school, and so does the Education Review Office (ERO). The ERO’s report on my son’s school is glowing, and uplifting and very encouraging, which is not something I’ve regularly come across in ERO reports of the many other schools I’ve researched. However, according to recently released data, 100% of the students at this amazing school, are failing National Standards for reading, writing and maths.

Reading that set of data, was like a slap in the face, for a whole host of reasons. It was the first I’d heard that my son – as necessarily part of the 100% – is well below meeting any of the standards. I was quite upset that the school hadn’t told me directly, at some point in time, that he was so below the standards. I meet with the teacher twice a year, and write to her and hear back from her via a notebook pretty much everyday of the school year. How does it not come up, why not even a “by the way, the data is about to be released, and we thought we should warn you about what it will say…”

Add to this the sense that my son’s – and every child in that school’s – privacy has just been breached big time. This is because there is no variation in the results; everyone knows that every single child in that school falls in that failing 100%. Not one single child sits outside of the grouping, so no one could think “maybe her child is that single out-lying child who’s doing well in reading” or whatever it might be. It’s like having some part of my son’s personal school report being splashed all over the internet for everyone to judge.

It was a shock: Everyone in the school is not even “below” but “well below” the standards. I honestly thought my son was doing well in some areas, that he might even be meeting some standards for his age. I had (what are apparently) delusions that he might one day do well enough to be able to attend a mainstream class. It’s like someone took my hopes and threw a bucket of cold water on them.

His is not the only special school with these results. Another special school went very public recently with it’s 100% outcome, and why it doesn’t reflect the school or the children’s improvements and abilities. That makes me feel a little more settled, but it leads to the obvious question: Why are these schools being expected to match their students against standards that apparently it could be predicted no student would meet? Or if they must be tested against these evidently irrelevant standard (irrelevant in terms of what the students could and should be achieving in any meaningful sense), then why is the data presented alongside the outcomes of every other school; is this not a foreseeable broad breach of privacy, and does it not make a farce of the data in total?

Back in August 2011, when I wrote about National standards and special needs students, the government had decided it was going to provide data for special needs students separately. For some reason, in late 2011, it decided to go back on this arrangement: “As the Herald on Sunday has put it, ‘despite being told they would be exempt from national standards…many show a line of noughts for the numbers of pupils achieving at or above standards’. This is referring to a change of Ministry of Education policy in late 2011 that saw all students, regardless of background characteristics, having to be entered for the National Standards..”

Not only does this reversal in policy mean our schools are placed alongside other schools which are set up for entirely different types of students, it also means special needs students within mainstream schools will count poorly against the schools overall data, thereby also making special needs students “undesirable.” Which is to say, one of the key protective mechanisms that I thought would save students like my son from being unwanted and rejected from mainstream schools on the grounds of impact on National Standards, has been done away with. This feels like a threat against our children; they’re already unjustifiably, and in some cases, illegally, excluded from entry to mainstream schools on the basis of prejudices and ignorance, and now there’s one more reason to make the schools and other parents say “no.”

National Standards in context, made sense to me; putting it in place alongside a student’s IEP and overall progress, even if they didn’t meet the actual standard. But it feels like that context has gone now, and in its place is a new excuse to exclude and attack our children.

Yes I wish my son’s school and teacher had told me about him failing to meet any standards. I would have liked to know so I had a more realistic over-view of his abilities. I know he’s progressing well, and I am so proud of his progress and so happy with what his teachers have achieved with him. But I would have liked to have a broader context for those achievements too. It’s not the sort of thing I want a twice or thrice yearly reminder of (“hey your son’s doing great, but he’s failing compared to normal kiddies”), but maybe once a year just to be told whether he is advancing towards those standards. If he was never ever going to reach any of the standards by their assessment, then I would have wanted to hear them say that once, and never hear of it again; at that point the information will never change, so why constantly remind a parent of something they already know, and that will be painful for some.

At first when I saw my son’s school’s 100% “well below” rate (or “failure” rate to use a harsher word), I went into a bit of denial; surely the school is just saying it’s 100% as a form of protest? But no, this is just reality, as harsh as it is. And having to face that reality being read off a public website, available to everyone else in New Zealand too at the same time, hurt me. It made me cry. Even writing this I literally have tears in my eyes because this is hard. It’s unfair. It even borders on cruel. I know my son has an intellectual disability, I get it, though I didn’t realise how bad it was. But does everyone else in the country have to know how bad it is too?

I’m upset at the system, at the school, at the teachers, at the media. I need time to get my head around all this and whether it’s worth my tears. My husband is calmer than I am about this, and he reminds me that our son has vastly improved since the data was last collected (last year). But are we both still just grasping on to the hope that our son will be the one person in the entire school to break out of that 100% failure rate? Isn’t that hope itself poorly placed considering every other student hasn’t reached that point either? Is the fact that we even carry this hope and expectation mean we should think differently about a school that hasn’t produced that result for any of their kids? But even thinking that way means I’ve fallen into the trap of forgetting what this school is all about, and their amazing and meaningful and contextual achievements with all their students.

Like I said, this is confusing for me. And if it’s confusing for me, imagine what it says to all vast majority of the population out there who have absolutely no appreciation of what schools like my son’s do everyday, and about what our children are capable of in everyday life. Do results like these make them think even less of schools and people that they already didn’t understand or appreciate? That’s a definite possibility, and that scares me too; things are hard enough in this world for my son already, without people prejudging his deeper intellect and capacities based on the fact that he attends a special needs school. He is so much more than a number, or a failure rate.

So how do I feel now about National Standards, having seen how distorting and irrelevant it actually is for children like my son, and schools like these? I’ll let you know once I’ve recovered from the slap, for now I’m too emotional to be as objective as I’d like to be. But I’m interested in hearing your own thoughts and reactions, and whether now seeing the data has changed your previous opinions about the merits, and demerits, of National Standards.


I’d like to know how others feel about the application of National Standards to special needs children; I know not everyone feels comfortable commenting, so here’s a poll for those who prefer that method:

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20 Responses to The Slap of National Standards; How National Standards Made Me Cry.

  1. nostromo says:

    I beg to differ. Its an important but subtle distinction that the word ‘Failing’ is in the linked article but not on the ministry sites. ‘Failing’ implies there has been an expectation that a particular goal or target shall be met, but that it wasn’t.

    However most of our children would not be expected to meet those standards as they do not have the underlying capabilities to make that possible – so they cannot have ‘failed’.

    I think the correct term of phrase is they are not meeting the National standards level. Some SN kids might though, in some skill areas (in my daughters year there is a boy with Aspergers who can whip anyone else in the school at Maths).

    But what of not being at National standards? Its data. The principle and others draw inference that the information implicitly passes judgement upon the teachers and the school, and the students.

    Well no it doesn’t, its people that pass judgement and make interpretations, not figures. The truth is the truth, might be useful, and should not be hidden to my mind.

    My son is below the 0.% in some areas, I’m not in the least ashamed of him, nor in anybody knowing, its not his fault he is the way he is, and I’m quite happy for him to be included in National standards data. However I would say that perhaps in a school such as his where there is a SN unit that it be listed as a sub-set rather than part of the schools average data, or maybe have the total, and then split the two groups out.

    • I understand what you’re saying, and as you’re probably aware from my previous post on this, I used to hold the same view about National Standards. But it’s also clear that these standards are not meaningful for our kids, and that many believe they lack meaning for other children too (though perhaps in not such an obvious way). The turning point for me is when they decided to not distinguish the data about SN kids and SN schools from those that aren’t, then they talk about the data as a whole, claiming certain schools are failing their students or failing to get their students to reach the standards. That is distorting, inaccurate, and particularly unhelpful. If they had kept the data separate – as they’d originally planned to do – I’d be a lot happier about this whole mess.

      (Also, I hope you’re not implying that my own upset is a sign of “shame” about my son. My upset was because I had to find out just how poor he was doing via a public forum, along with everyone else – the shock of it as much as anything. And my concern over the simple truth that others will and do judge our children based on these irrelevant standards, including other schools and other parents, and that can impact on his future education and the way people may treat him. I’m going to assume that you didn’t mean to imply I was feeling shame about my son, but merely sharing that you yourself don’t feel any shame.)

      • nostromo says:

        No, I know your not ashamed of your son, and I also I know from personal experience it can be shock to find out really where our kids ‘sit’ in measurable terms. I remember my sons Vineland II report, that was really shocking. When I look in his eyes I don’t feel he is intellectually disabled, I don’t think of him in that way really, but when push comes to shove and someone comes along to assess him, as to what he can do, then there it is in glaring black and white.

        I can see the argument that the data might nonsensical, as its not really detailed enough to make an assessment of the schools ability which I guess is really the point of it. You would need to assess the achievement level of each child against a multitude of factors I suppose, such as their IQ, nutrition, previous years attainment, etc, etc. But I don’t really see it as being harmful myself, I think if the data is perceived to be largely meaningless for reasons like that then not much stock will be placed on it by the large majority.

  2. Joanne says:

    I am really sorry that you had to find out this sort of information from a public website. I think your son’s school could have handled it better. I know our school usually gets the scores for standardized testing and the “report card” a little before it is made public. I wouldn’t be surprised if yours received the news ahead of time. They should have been able to craft an appropriate letter, indicating what the scores would be, but emphasizing the fact that your son is making amazing progress, that their program is effective and that it is a favorite of the ERO.

    As a teacher in the US, I can attest that we have a similar sort of struggle with standardized testing and the “Failing School Label”. There is a huge push in the States, both at the federal and state level for standardization and “high achievement for all students.” Some of it is based in sound educational practices, and others are based in politician-land.

    I feel like I have to give a little background, despite the fact that this comment is probably going to be as long as your post! (Sorry) Under the most recent President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act, 100% of the students are expected to “Meet or Exceed Standards” on standardized testing by the year 2014. Schools’ funding, statuses, and even the jobs within schools are tied to the performance of students on a single test, administered once a year. The process for implementing started with a “low” achievement percentage and each year, that percentage has increased “gradually” to the 100%.

    (I won’t go into the ridiculousness of wanting every child to “Meet or exceed standards” on a NORMED test. It’s impossible!)

    What has happened, at least at the specific school that I work at, is the fact that for the past 5 years, we have been listed as a failing school. Our test scores in Reading and Math have improved across the board for all the grade levels serviced by our school. In fact, all of our “sub-groups” of children have met or exceeded standards…except for the special needs population. Because that population of students hasn’t met the minimum, ever rising, standards for the past 5 years, we are a “failing school.” Last year, we had to send letters out to all the parents in the school indicating that the reason we failed, again, to meet standards was because of our Special Education sub-group.

    What was especially painful was the fact that every single student in that sub-group showed immense growth from year-to-year. With some of the most severe students even rising approximately 20-30 percentile points in one year! Our superintendant at the time even told the district staff that we “missed making AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) by 7 Special Education students.” So though our students are making incredible individual progress, and our teachers are working so hard, our school is failing because we can’t turn Special Needs students into “normal” students.

    Our current President is allowing states to apply for a waiver from the NCLB 100% regulation in a new program called “Race to the Top” in which states “compete” to earn federal funds. (I won’t go into the controversies there, as that’s another discussion)

    As part of the Race to the Top, we have to adopt what is called “Common Core Standards.” I happen to agree with the standards as a whole. I think that having a set of National Standards is a good thing. Such standards will hopefully ensure that the population of students as a whole are being taught the same skill sets at about the same time across the country, regardless of the individual curriculums and programs offered by individual states, towns, or districts. Part of having a such common standards means that we need to have a common, standardized, test. I think that while standardized testing data can be misused (and often is), having a standardized test that all students take can be very informative for parents, teachers and administration. It’s a way to track the achievement of an individual student against a national norm. As teachers, we can use the data from these tests to inform our instruction, help develop interventions for students, and help to identify students who may have an underlying special need that has been undiagnosed.

    What I do not agree with is the policy of “Grading” schools, teachers, or districts based on a single standardized test, and penalizing them based on the scores, without regard for the special populations within the school. As a teacher of a special population (English Language Learners), and having worked very closely with the Special Education teachers in my school, I am particularly mindful of the needs of my students and their ability to perform on standardized tests. How fair is it to grade me on my instruction of Reading, by giving an 8th grade level Reading test to an 8th grade ELL student, in English, with no accommodations other than extra time, and that student has only been speaking English for just over 1 year? And heaven forbid that they found out their father is being deported, or they have a cold, or they didn’t get breakfast that morning, or their parents were at work all night and they were the sole care-giver for younger siblings all night. Home lives NEVER affect test results (insert sarcasm here).

    I think that your son’s school, and you as part of the school family, have been caught in an unfortunate and unfair political catch-22. You have an exceptional program available to you, that is meeting the needs of your son, helping him to develop and make incredible gains, but is not performing like schools that are all made up of a “normal” mix of students. (I am using normal in the sense of a normed test with a standard bell curve). It should not be compared to schools in the manner that your school was. I’m pretty sure that if you spoke with the Principal or your son’s Teacher, they too are just as shocked and angry as you are at the way that it was presented to the public.

    The mistake the school made was in not preparing you for the news. NOT in how they are providing an education for your son. I would suggest that you schedule a meeting with your son’s teacher to have her go over your son’s individual scores with you. Have him / her break down his scores and explain what each of the categories / sub-categories / etc. means, and ask him/ her how this information will inform her instruction. How will she use this information? Finally, I would wait until next year’s scores come out. Once you have some longitudinal data on your son (his performance on the test from year to year) you will be able to see his gains and his growth on this ONE test.

    Your son is ahead of the game: He has you for a mum. He’s enrolled in a school that, from all your descriptions, is a model school. And he has some pretty powerful advocates in his family, and his teachers.

    Finally, I truly apologize at the horrific length this comment turned out to have, but I hope that it helped give a different perspective.

    • It was a most excellent comment Joanne, the length just a reflection of the extraordinary amount of information, insight and familiarity you have with these issues that I am so new to. I really appreciate you sharing what is happening in the US, it is both interesting and disturbing to see the parallels. Thank you for your kind and reassuring words, and your advice. It is great advice, and I intend to follow up on it when school returns in term 4 (2 weeks holiday has just begun).


  3. Zac Markham says:

    I have two sons with special needs . My older son despite having autism / ADHD and a intellectual disability remains in a mainstream environment . This means he is at the mercy of the standards and the government that is forcing schools to implement them . Forcing my son through this type of assessment ( ie MOE forcing the school ) is nothing short of neglect in terms of the challenges my son will face and will continue to face . I know this is off the topic but the kind of barriers put up by government agencies when asking about funding is nothing short of a disgrace . My younger son has ORS and is attending a local special school . I (and my wife ) made this decision because at the time , the advice given by the MOE was the standards would not apply . In the last 12 months my son has gone from a selective mute- as described by GSE to a boy who talks and is admired by staff at both his SC and across the school . As a parent I find the government’s policy direction cold and uninformed . I just happen to be a teacher at the special school . The school has fought implementation until MOE officals starting contacting the principal every day , now what is the school suppose to do ? Parents have been informed of government decisions but the expectations remain . How as a teacher how am I suppose to tell parents , sorry your son (as my class are all boys ) will never acheive the real levels of acheivement and learning regardless of IEP goals and acheivement .

    • Thanks for sharing your story and experiences Zac. I too am feeling like the government doesn’t understand our children or what is best for them in terms of education, despite the fact that they have apparently put more funding into special education and were aware enough to continue the existence of special schools in the face of pressure of groups like IHC who want to see these schools shut down. I would really like to know the government’s reasoning for their change in attitude towards the application and grouping of National Standards for special needs children. I’m going to have to do further research into that specific issue. Thanks for your comment.

  4. Dianne says:

    First I want to say my heart goes out to you for many reasons. I don’t feel you should have found that information out the way you did, as there was plenty of opportunity for you to be told the results well before, personally.
    The pain of seeing your child’s results up there is black and white for the world to see (and judge) is a pain many parents have felt, and not just special needs parents. It does nothing to help the children, the parents or the teachers. Whether they are at a lower, same or higher level than wee Bernard in the next chair or next school or 300 kilometers away really is not the main thing to consider, ever. The only thing that matters is the progress a child is making – where they were and how far they have come. PROGRESS. Are they learning? Is the teacher, the school, adding well to their skills and knowledge? Is the child engaged and learning? Are they moving forward at a fair rate for their ability level? That’s all that matters.
    National Standards do not tell us any of that. They are not worth the paper they are written on or pixels they are displayed with.
    I hope you can take heart that your con is moving forward, and maybe you want to talk to the school about making progress (or lack of it) very clear from now on, so you all know where you stand, as that is the best way to be informed how your child is doing, in any school, anywhere.
    Good luck, and well done to your son for his no doubt great progress for his ability – that is something to be celebrated always. x

  5. Dianne says:

    Reblogged this on Save Our Schools NZ and commented:
    National Standards reporting of Special Needs Schools’ data has left some parents very upset indeed….

  6. SD says:

    I incorrectly assumed that the results of SN kids were excluded from the results and it was only when I started reading a local political blog that I realized that wasn’t the case.

    I don’t like that this type of exposure invites comment about resources spent on SN kids compared to normal kids and the perceived benefits/results. I have had comments about how “fortunate” my son is to have a teacher aide from a parent at pre-school and I don’t want to have to justify the MOE spending on my son to others.

    I also worry that If my child attends a mainstream school, people (i.e. other parents) may automatically assume that it is his results bringing down the school grades and thereby creating the opportunity for another form of discrimination.

    • All excellent, and very concerning points, SD. You are absolutely right about the growing rhetoric out there about funding being “wasted” on our kids because they don’t “perform well.” It’s a short-sighted and rather inhumane view, that I’m tempted to write a post about. Thank you for your thoughtful – though sadly true – comment.

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  8. Apathy Jack says:

    If I still had a blog I might focus this into something coherent, but for now, a series of unconnected thoughts…

    * If I had to guess (and you may have talked to them about this already) I’d say the school didn’t report the problem with the standards because, basically, they’re not taking the standards seriously or treating them as a proper thing. My stepson’s report card had printed on the same page as the National Standards an offical letter from the Principal saying that the school did not recognise the legitimacy of said standards and advised us as parents to disregard them, and to contact the school if we wanted to have it explained to us why National Standards were bollocks and nonsense. Not Telling People, like your son’s school seems to have done, is just the same thing filtered through apathy rather than activism. That’s speculation on my part of course…

    *Communication between parents and teachers is pretty terrible. I know you’ve had a decent run with the school in question, but I try actively to avoid parents because, well, parents are awful and I hate them. I don’t want to talk to parents about how to educate their children for the same reason a plumber doesn’t want me to tell them how to fix broken pipes. (And yes, I know how wildly inflamatory that statement will be to all parents. Don’t worry, not all teachers think that way. Just most of us.) That having been said, the school’s failure to report the National Standards would probably be more related to my above point of them not recognising the legitimacy of the standards rather than just normal poor communication.

    * I don’t dislike the idea of a national standard to measure the achievement of students. I would prefer that we had indivualised programs and measured each child separately, but I can’t think of a way to make that happen, so for the time being I see no problem with setting a standard. However, it is clear to anyone who is keeping up with Ministry developments that the Ministry of Education is, not to put too fine a point on it, making this shit up as they go along. It’s not just the Ministry per se, it’s all educational bureacracy – NZQA and the Ministry are releasing half-formed ideas into the wild as policy before they’ve been properly thought out. An example of this is that the govt decided that NCEA wasn’t as hard as bursary used to be, thusly wasn’t preparing students for uni. Now, this was true, but their solution was for NZQA to realign all of the senior assessments to make them harder, without 1) implementing any other changes in how things were doing, and assuming the students would just magically get smarter if they had to do a harder exam, and 2) without giving any support to teachers on how to implement these new standards. (In December of last year for example,we were told that the 2012 standards would be finalised ‘any minute now’ – we could not plan our programs with any sense of security.) The short version: the concept of any kid failing National Standards has to be taken with a grain of salt, as the govt still isn’t sure what National Standards really are. There’s been no control group and no proven successes yet.

    *For all my hatred of the implementation of National Standards, something does need to be done at primary level to raise achievement. I have thirteen-year-olds coming into my class with reading ages of eight or nine. This is because, as out mutual friend Stef so hates me saying, all primary school teachers are shit at their jobs. However, the solution to primary teachers not being worth the crayons their degrees are written with is not the rushed and un-thought-out implementation of a set of rules that are 1) unrelaistic, 2) untested and unproven in any way shape or form, and 3) despised by the majority of the people who would have to implement them.

    The above are random thoughts, but I think the sum of them is: National Standards (or at least the implemetation thereof) is rubbish, and it looks like your school is handling them the same way most schools are, which is to say: badly. It’s unfortunate that you got caught in that storm.

    • I wish you were still blogging; sounds like you have a lot of worthwhile thoughts, that I’d like to hear more about. I must say that I largely agree with your sentiments and observations, there are some new considerations there that I hadn’t dwelled on previously, so thank you for sharing your insights.

      I’m going to be careful how I say this because I’m still employed at university as a teacher, but I’ve seen a gradual decline over the decade I’ve been teaching, in the quality of work from the students. I once had high expectations that students frequently met, I have watched standards slipping, not improving. There are still outstanding students – there always will be – but something is clearly going wrong when there’s an obvious trend downwards in skills. I’m also going to say that my own education failed me in various regards, which only became obvious at university level. There were many basic skills I had to teach myself in order to meet university / adult writing standards for example, despite always excelling at English at highschool (I believe I got 90% for school cert English, back when we had such a thing). At this point then, we’re getting those who were let down by the education system, becoming teachers themselves, which just makes the system progressively worse as the cycle continues. As you say too, I don’t know what the magic bullet is. Perhaps there isn’t one. But a haphazard untested solution, as we seem to be seeing now according to my many teaching friends, is surely not the answer.

  9. Hilary Stace says:

    We knew this would happen back in December 2008 when the National Standards legislation was passed under urgency and didn’t go to a select committee. I wrote about it several times eg
    The Education select committee did go on to have their own little inquiry which reported last year, but it was still unclear about what schools were supposed to do with their ASD kids.
    Here is the 2011 update and text of the select committee report

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