Thursday, July 25, 2013

Bi-culturalism, NZ Curriculum and Te Whāriki

What is "success" is a heterogeneous society?

Aotearoa New Zealand, as well as being a bi-cultural nation, is a “heterogeneous society with a diverse socio-cultural demographic. It must, therefore, cater for diverse learners” (Ministry of Education 2011:7). Further, our learners learn in diverse ways and in varying contexts. Our curriculum framework recognises this and encourages a personalised learning approach for all our students. (Ministry of Education 2011).

In response to our rich diversity, Aotearoa New Zealand has a world class primary school curriculum framework and an outstanding Early Childhood Education (ECE) document - Te Whāriki. Both documents are child-centred in their philosophies and see children as the primary stakeholder in their learning.

Given our heterogeneity, what then is the definition of success and how do we know when we have achieved it?

The Ministry of Education (2011) position paper on assessment argues that the purpose of assessment is to be used as a key component of quality teaching to improve student learning. “For some years now, our approach to assessment has been moving beyond a narrow summative (“end point” testing) focus to a broader focus on assessment as a means of improving teaching and learning...” (Ministry of Education 2011:9)

The visionary assessment paper states that each primary school should decide the best way to assess their student’s within New Zealand Curriculum Framework and their local context. They assert that our National Standards system should be unique and not underpinned by a narrow testing regime. 

The Ministry recommends an 'Assessment For Learning' approach where the primary focus is strengths based as well as improving the quality of our education programmes. The paper discusses the implementation of National Standards for literacy and numeracy (and Ngā Whanaketanga Rumaki Māori for te reo and pāngarau). They reiterate that there should be no narrow national testing and that standards should be based on qualitative judgements made by teachers. This, they claim, “is a novel approach when compared with approaches elsewhere in the world...” (Ministry of Education 2011:11).

The paper then goes on to show how the national standards differ from the NZ Curriculum in that they “specifically and definitively link to a period of time (after one, two, or three years at school) or year level (end of year 4, 5, 6, 7, or 8). They provide reference points of expected achievement which can be used nationwide to consider progress and achievement. They describe what students should be aiming for, or beyond, as they move through years 1–8 of their schooling...” (Ministry of Education 2011:12). Further, they should not be used as a test or checklist and they are deliberately broad.

In 2008 through the National Education Guidelines and amendments made to the Education Act, National Standards started to become increasingly narrow in terms of both what achievement is and when it should happen.

For example, Section 60A(1) of the Education Act was amended by inserting the following paragraph after paragraph (b):

“national standards, which are standards, in regard to matters such as literacy and numeracy, that are applicable to all students of a particular age or in a particular year of schooling:”.

This narrows our curriculum on at least two levels:

1 - Literacy and Numeracy are valued as 'achievement’ over any other curriculum area

2 - It assumes that children’s achievement is linked to an arbitrary condition … their age.

A further narrowing can be seen in relation to the English curriculum where National Standards reporting requires only Reading and Writing and excludes Speaking, Viewing, Presenting and Listening. National Administration Guidelines require Principals and BOTs to reporting their National Standards Data in terms of 'external benchmarks'. This means that some form of narrow testing must be used to fulfil their reporting obligations.

Defining achievement by comparing students with their same aged peers stems back to a 'factory model' of education where children were assessed and instruction according to their age.  Sir Ken Robinson argues that this ‘factory based paradigm’ reform is not the way forward for our education systems:
“The fact is that given the challenges we face, education doesn't need to be reformed, it needs to be transformed. The key to this transformation is not to standardize education, but to personalize it, to build achievement on discovering the individual talents of each child, to put students in an environment where they want to learn and where they can naturally discover their true passions.” Robinson 2010

Benchmark testing (e.g. STAR, eAsttle, PAT and Probe) require our children to prove their ability to achieve in isolation without access to any of their usual learning tools. The content of these assessments test only their ability to  Read, Write, and do Maths.

Benchmark testing is often justified under the guise of ‘validity’ however we argue that schools are not sterile scientific labs and children can not be compared with each other based on something as narrow as their chronological age. Validity, according to the Ministry of Education’s definition, comes in 4 forms:

  • Face validity - do the assessment items appear to be appropriate? 
  • Content validity - does the assessment content cover what we want to assess? 
  • Criterion-related validity - how well does the test measure what we want it to? 
  • Construct validity - are you measuring what you think you're measuring? 

We argue that the narrow benchmark testing fails to meet any of the validity definitions and question their appropriateness and what it is that they are actually measuring. This kind of testing values a child’s ability to absorb information, memorise, then recall it in isolation. As Bishop and Glynn argue this is a very western way to measure achievement:

Maori and Pakeha relationships since the signing of the Treaty have not been a partnership of two peoples developing a nation but political,social, and economic domination by the Pakeha majority and marginalization of the Maori people through armed struggle,biased legislation and educational initiatives and policies that promoted Pakeha knowledge codes at the expense of Maori.

While Western science and education tend to emphasise compartmentalized knowledge which is often de-contextualized and taught in the detached setting of a classroom or laboratory, indigenous people have traditionally acquired their knowledge through direct experience in the natural world. For them, the particulars come to be understood in relation to the whole, and the ‘laws’ are continually tested in the context of everyday survival. Western thought also differs from indigenous thought in its notion of competency. In Western terms, competency is often assessed based on predetermined ideas of what a person should know, which is then measured indirectly through various forms of ‘objective’ tests. Such an approach does not address whether that person is actually capable of putting that knowledge into practice . . . (2005: 10)
We believe that in order to honour both Pakeha and Maori ways of knowing that a broader strengths-based assessment system needs to not only be developed but be valued through formal reporting.

Developing a strengths-based personalised and authentic assessment system

Working on the MOEs definition of validity we are trialling assessment procedures that value the broad curriculum as well as the key competencies.
  • Face validity - are the assessment items appropriate to our heterogeneous society? 
  • Content validity - are we measuring the right stuff? 
  • Criterion-related validity - how well does the test measure what we want it to? 
  • Construct validity - are we measuring what we think we are measuring?