The National Monitoring Project (NEMP) is gone for all money. Leaving aside the NZCER, the one trusted assessment institution for primary schools is about to be bowdlerised. NEMP has been made contestable. In other words it is going to be another ‘independent’ tool in the propaganda armoury of the state. Independent in the way ‘Democratic’ in the official name for North Korea conveys the reality of that country’s political system.
While I have had issues with Terry Crooks over his straddling national standards’ stance, I have always recognised his unassailable position as a genuine education hero. He and Lester, another hero, of course, have fought like tigers over the years to maintain NEMP’s independence; a fight that goes back to Lockwood Smith’s time and has been unceasing. Now it has been lost.
The strength of NEMP, aside from its genuine independence, was that it was led by people who had a feeling for, and an understanding of, the New Zealand curriculum.
NEMP delved into all parts of the curriculum, went gently into the affective, never sensationalised results, and became the standard for informing us about how we were doing. It also was, not coincidentally, a cooperative exercise between academics and teachers.
The complexity of the issue for me, though, is that I have little confidence in the leadership of the NEMP that was to be, but now won’t. I have read the writings of Geoff Smith and found no indications that he understood us, was in a position to defend NEMP’s independence, was anything more than another quantitative crammed full of that American university formulaic, cutey-pie, measurement-based fiddle-faddle. Though I have crossed swords with Alison Gilmore in these columns, I do have confidence in her, but she was never going to be the dominating influence. Mind you, it is Gilmore who is presently desperately trying to salvage something from the wreckage (Smith is at a conference as quantitatives are wont to be) setting up a last task contract (on national standards) which the ministry is likely to award – however, it won’t be a NEMP contract.
The question now arises, who is in line for the contract? Otago can bid. But will it be one of the other universities? Only Auckland would be in a position to bid, but I don’t think it would have the audacity to do so. Cognition which is a partnership between Hattie, Auckland, and MultiServe would, on the surface be a very likely contender but, once again, probably would not have the audacity to bid first time round. The Roundtable’ education arm might think of putting a team together; or Michael Absolum who picks up many assessment contracts; or perhaps a foreign bid.
In the first instance, some likely contenders will hold off, saying they think Otago should retain the contract, but Otago won’t be given it, so these other contenders might just be playing the long game. But the prospect of a foreign bid – one from Australia is a real possibility.
A real possibility because lurking below the welter of words and soothing assurances in the ministry registrations of interest (ROI) lies an intrusive and controlling framework modelled on the Australian experience. The name of the new project suggests the direction: National Monitoring Study of Student Outcomes. This new project will be restricted to what is measurable as indicated by that key quantitative word ‘outcomes’ – a word which has connotations (chilling curriculum narrowing ones) well beyond its dictionary definition.
The ROI talks of light sampling, assessing attitudinal and affective outcomes, not relying on paper and pencil tests, and retaining the confidence of the education sector, but there is reference quietly inserted which provides a clue to what the new project is really about.
On page 7 of the ROI is a reference to ‘similar studies in other jurisdictions such as Australia’, and there you have it, a new assessment tool to further distort curriculum practices.
The Australian Labour Government has enmeshed schools in an overall National Assessment Programme (NAP) which includes their national standards and a sampling monitoring project for the whole curriculum which is all about outcomes, in other words, that which is easily observable and measurable. Superficially, the new project will look like NEMP, but will be very different in practice with a focus on the outcomes or artefacts of learning, the superficials, as against NEMP’s one of rich assessment procedures.
I do have to point out, though, as suggested above, the outcomes’ direction was where NEMP was likely to go anyway, but at least under the present structure there would have been time to be part of the debate. In the new project, decisions have already been made.
How should we respond? The NZEI should engage Lester as an adviser on the matter. From there it should investigate the ministry’s proposals and intentions, set out its main objections, argue for a more grounded assessment philosophy, and explain why it is requesting that schools refuse to participate. And while it is at it, follow the same process to investigate the lavishly funded Maths Technology so-called independent research into national standards.
The NZEI must show the ministry that teachers are not puppets to the shadowy ministry puppet-masters.
We must not let the destruction of another institutional pillar go without a fight.