Has New Zealand education just announced an end to testing? | Richard Wells | 6 Min Read

New Zealand is already a country with progressive values and practices in education. We already have a standards-based assessment system for university entrance, flexible enough to cater for different student needs. We have a curriculum level progression framework that students work through during their school journey with a push to move away from grading individual pieces of work in isolation. Have we just taken a giant leap and “quietly” announced an end to all testing?

To add to an already progressive agenda the government has announced a national curriculum refresh, I think to further convince more teachers to shift their practice and mindset in regards to the purpose of the classroom and align them with a national vision for education that has actually existed for 14 years now.

One interpretation of this curriculum refresh is mainly a conversational and planning tool to help streamline and frame a national conversation around educational practice. It is always useful when wanting to move things forward that we ensure everyone is speaking the same language and understands the components of education under the same implications and priorities.

A new conversation

The framework shapes the conversation in the form of “Understand. Know. Do.” It emphasises that these three elements are not carried out in some linear progression but are interdependent on each other through the whole learning process. 

UNDERSTAND – provide purpose and motivation

The Understand component asks teachers and schools to ensure there is always an on-going wider context or “big idea” to all learning. It is important for teachers to understand that this essentially should not include what traditionally might’ve been the content you want to teach. The purpose of this part of learning is the motivation and the answer to why the example content is taught and relevant. The Understand component of the learning process is a recognition that to learn and to be motivated to learn, one must always have a personal answer to the question: why am I learning this? The big idea should also be aimed at being applicable in multiple contexts so as to encourage students to explore, personalize and culturally respond to this ‘big idea’. Understanding implies connecting to and creates a purpose for knowledge and a reason to apply(do), this in turn drives better outcomes.

KNOW – knowledge as a tool not an end in itself

The Know component of this framework covers where teachers might exemplify using knowledge and content that apply to the big idea. The content knowledge should introduce sub issues and concepts that although are exemplified by the content also point to being applicable in other scenarios. In learning, knowledge is not an end in itself like in the performance-based traditional model, it is a context with which we understand wider concepts and implications that we can then apply in the third component of this learning framework ‘Do.”

DO – Good rigour over bad rigour.

Under this third element of Do, the ministry outlines that this is where rigour is applied but it is very very important for educators to understand that this is good rigour (sorry for the UK spelling) rather than bad rigour. Read this piece for a full explanation. Bad rigour is the idea of being hard for the sake of being hard or painful. Bad rigour is teachers giving shorter time scales to complete or issuing large amounts of material to process and regurgitate, mostly in the name of difficulty and as a test in compliance. This traditional idea of rigour came from a comfort the system had for elitism and hierarchy.

Good rigour is shown by emphasizing the idea that knowledge is used to understand wider ideas and by doing activity at school you are challenged to display your understanding by shifting knowledge and examples to new contexts. It is far more rigorous but also more meaningful to display understanding through applying knowledge in new contexts, especially if those new contexts are intellectually or culturally relevant to you personally. It is less rigorous and more just a matter of compliance to regurgitate the exact knowledge you have already been shown. The results of these traditional tests, as I’ve written about before, are too influenced by our external factors such as homelife and cultural identity.

Not an end to assessment

This is not an end to assessment. It is an end to assessment through the outcomes of performance and a shift to assessment for learning rather than ranking. Teaching practice will integrate assessment as an on-going dialogue and agreement between teacher and student as to which level of a visible progression they have reached, including awareness of next steps on the progression. This regular dialogue and agreement provides authenticity in a personal and positive way. The teacher and student are fully and authentically assured of current success without the requirement to choose a moment to rank oneself against others.

The politics of testing

The government is too politically savvy to announce the end of testing in those words. It is clear though, that the way they have outlined this curriculum refresh, together with all of the work they have done over the last 10 years in culturally responsive practiceassessment for learning, and learning progression frameworks, this refresh is clearly another attempt to explain more simply that they expect schools to think and operate differently to that 20th century model teachers and parents are so familiar with.

As always the challenge will be for schools to put together a package of information and convincing arguments to bring their community along with them and reassure them that this is very much an improvement to the school experience and will not harm future opportunities for their children, especially those privileged students who are destined to almost automatically win the existing performance-based testing regime.

A thought for test lovers.

If you are a teacher who believes in the importance of standardised tests, I can outline how I agree in a particular role they can play in the classroom. As students process the taught knowledge and attempt in their own mind to apply it to the understanding of those bigger ideas, and if motivation to understand fully has been generated, it will feel natural to want to check one is understanding and making the correct connections. This is where a classroom contains a library (or maybe a shelf or Google drive folder) of self-diagnostic activities and even short tests and challenges for students to select from to confirm readiness to rigorously apply (Do) it in new contexts. But if you standardise the timing of these tests for all, you remove the purpose and meaning for the students, implying it is all for the teacher to confirm the class ranking and not about personal needs for making progress. See my video here on why exams don’t work

As it says in their ‘Understand, Know Do.’ graphic above, “Learning can not be left to chance” and it is time to draw a close on the mere hope that “they do well on the test”

Here is a video outlining my own school’s journey through this whole process over the last decade. 

This article was originally published in Eduwells, 11/21/2021.

Richard Wells

Richard Wells is a world-recognized educator, author and blogger on future education trends. He has presented around the world and has been rated in the top 50 world influencers for educational technology use. He currently works in school leadership and is passionate about moving schools forward to better represent the needs of the 21st century. Richard is an EdTech influencer who founded EduWells, a top 10 education blog. He is the author of A Learner's Paradise, a book in which he explains how education can operate without classrooms, lessons, subjects, and tests. Richard proudly started his career with a degree in Fine Art from Manchester in England. He worked in IT before contracting to work in schools, digitalizing their workflows in the late 1990s. He became an educator in 2003.

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