The real reason why national standards have been ‘delayed’

In my view, the breakdown in relationships between John Hattie, and Anne Tolley and the ministry of education, probably over asTTle, is the main reason why the national standards have been ‘delayed’. Other matters may have contributed to the delay, but until Tolley and the ministry sort out the matter of Hattie breaking from the ranks, they are in an exposed situation.

This posting argues, however, that the delayed implementation is not really a delay: more a slightly modified and extended shambles. Schools will still have to start the process in 2009, even though the nature of that process won’t have been fully worked out; the standards will, in reality, have to be have to be implemented in schools in 2010; and data gathered for the implementation from then on. The so-called extension to 2012 is a smokescreen.

Tolley says it ‘shows I have fulfilled my promise to listen to … concerns.’

She goes on to say that the extended ‘timeframe will also allow us to work together on addressing other issues, such as how the data is presented and used.’

In reality, though, the slightly extended timeframe will allow Hattie, and Tolley and the ministry time to work together to sort out issues with asTTle and, even more important to them, sort out the breakdown in relations between Hattie and Tolley sparked by asTTle.

While primary education doesn’t, in particular, need Hattie or Tolley they need each other – they are crucial to each other’s ambitions.

They both know that – which is why Hattie felt able to throw a hissy fit in Saturday’s NZ Herald (August 1, 2009) saying, for instance, that ‘primary schools will be “going back 50 years” if teachers are forced to stick to national standards in reading, writing and maths.’ And why Tolley, in return, offered something of an olive branch.

Tolley needs Hattie’s ideological cover for the conservative agenda she is following; and Hattie needs Tolley for ministry contracts in standardised testing, professional development (which he already has), and further down the track, teacher training programmes at universities, and performance-related pay. 

Hattie, as this web site has regularly explained, is a representative of the ‘school effectiveness and improvement’ research ideology; an ideology recognised by the way its proponents downplay socio-economic effects on learning; shape their research findings to appeal to conservative politicians; and are staunch in support of conservative ideas about education.

The ministry group ‘mapping’ the various standardised tests to relate them to the curriculum levels and the standards has ‘uncovered’ a problem with asTTLe. (This problem is well-known to people in the field and exploited to good use for review office visits.) At all parts of the process, asTTle results can be easily manipulated. This can happen through the tests chosen, their application and, above all, their interpretation. As a result, teacher judgement plays (or can play) a bigger part in asTTle than is usual in standardised tests.

As a critic of much of Hattie’s work, I find myself in the unusual situation of praising this characteristic of asTTle. There is no doubt, that if you want to use a standardised test for testing at children’s level of ability, asTTle’s greater sophistication makes it more suitable.

Examining Hattie’s outburst in the NZ Herald carefully, and teasing out the significance, provides support for the argument I have made.

Before I do that, however, I want to point out the strangeness of Hattie’s position in saying what he said. Hattie has always been against league tables, so we need to grant him that, but he is an international expert on national standards and knows exactly what is involved. He knows national standards are about age group comparisons or, alternatively, school year comparisons, never about ability level comparisons but, suddenly, he plays the innocent. And why did he leave his strident protest, whatever its basis, to the eleventh hour? My answer: he could see matters moving to asTTle’s disadvantage.

Hattie says ‘the changes … looked likely to force teachers to teach according to their school year, rather than their ability level.’

‘You’ve got gifted kids and slower learners – it’s absolutely absurd to believe they are working at the same level.’

This is astounding: standardised tests are used by bureaucracies and by politicians to demonstrate to parents that their children are below, at the same level as, or ahead of, other children of the same age: every one knows that – except it seems an international expert on standardised testing – that’s the point of standardised tests and why they are loved by politicians and despised by teachers. Indeed, that’s what is going to be shown on the school reports that Hattie developed: children below, at the same level as, or ahead of, other children of the same age.

‘The changes’, he said, ‘threatened to destroy one of the greatest strengths of the New Zealand education system, which was teaching children according to their own abilities.’

Exactly: this destruction is already happening (as well as science, social studies, and the arts going down the gurgler) but who cares except teachers, and now it seems, John Hattie.


He goes on to say that: ‘the levels-based curriculum will almost have to go out the window  …’

‘If this system comes in, the correct job for the teacher is to teach to the test. And that’s the problem.’

‘The result [will be] mediocrity …’

‘It was likely to make teachers less accountable to parents contrary to the Government’s intention.’

Then comes the key point to support my argument about the nature of the row between Hattie, and Tolley and the ministry: ‘With some kids, there is much better information than a test score. It’s the teacher’s judgement. And it’s the teacher’s judgement that should be held accountable, not the test score.’

Hattie, against the tenor of much of his writing, is making a fervent stand for the flexibility available in his asTTle tests, its manipulability, and the place of teacher judgement.

Significantly, even though weakly in logic, Tolley holds the olive: ‘What’s really important is what happens for each child and the progress that they make against those standards. If you like, it’s the value added.’

Tolley is right, what happens for each child is important, but that is not what standards are about, that is the stardust politicians sprinkle over a pernicious process. Her reference to ‘value added’ is an attempt to mollify Hattie over his statements, especially his reference to testing children at their level of ability.

If my argument is correct, where does this leave schools? As you may have read in a recent posting (‘A stinker by any other name is still a stinker’) I said that by buying into Tolley’s soft-soaping that the New Zealand system will be different from the British or American system, we are fooling ourselves, because it is the same slippery slope. Schools, must of course, adhere to the regulations but, even before national standards are brought in here, we should be considering ways to have them ushered out (as is occurring overseas). Meanwhile, we are likely to have to witness in the months ahead the dolorous spectacle of Tolley helping Hattie to put his toys back in the cot. And from that, to believe that all is well in the twisted alternative world that is national standards.


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