Section Three: Ongoing successes and challenges when collecting and using assessment

Each year ERO undertakes reviews in approximately 800 New Zealand schools. During each school’s review, ERO evaluators use assessment information to inform discussions and for reporting on students’ progress and achievement.

Over the decade spanned by this report, ERO has reviewed and reported on all schools in New Zealand, on average three times each.   Along with our national evaluation studies, this has provided ERO with a rich evidential base, enabling us to identify trends in practice and improvement across the sector.  ERO has recognised ongoing successes and challenges for leaders and teachers collecting and using assessment information.

Assessment in Years 1 to 3

The early years of primary school are a critical time for children, when they learn the reading, writing and mathematics skills they need to engage with all aspects of The New Zealand Curriculum. When children start school, each child’s literacy and numeracy experience and knowledge is different. How well this experience and knowledge is recognised and used in their education on a daily basis is, to a large extent, in the hands of their teacher.

To effectively build on each child’s knowledge and strengths teachers need to:

  • seek and use information from parents, whānau and the child’s early learning service as the child transitions to school
  • judiciously use a range of assessment tools to identify what the child knows already and what they should work on next
  • continue to work with parents and whānau to share robust information about the child’s interests, achievement and progress
  • help the child to understand what they are learning, when they are successful and what they should practise next
  • have clear expectations about what a year’s progress looks like and an explicit commitment to excellence and equity
  • know the teaching strategies to apply to support children to learn to read, write and apply simple mathematical concepts.

Mathematics Successes and Issues

Generally, our children are more confident with and enjoy mathematics earlier in their schooling than they do by the end of primary school. The most recent National Monitoring Study of Student Achievement (NMSSA) mathematics and statistics report (2013) found that while 81 percent of Year 4 students were performing at Level 2 of the curriculum as expected, only 41 percent of Year 8 students were performing at the expected Level 4. The report also found that Year 8 students were less positive about mathematics than Year 4 students.

In the past decade, teachers have increased their confidence with assessing and responding to individual children’s numeracy achievement and progress. Considerable professional learning and development has supported teachers to undertake numeracy assessment, and to teach the concepts children need to master next.  Teachers use relevant resources to carry out diagnostic interviews, observations and other junior assessments. The assessments are aligned to The New Zealand Curriculum, provide considerable formative information, and give more general summative information (as shown in the example below).

Mathematics and statistics curriculum coverage

Number and algebra comprise 60 to 80 percent of the programme for Years 1 to 3 students. Teachers are not as likely to have collected, used and responded to assessments related to geometry, measurement and statistics. There are no summative assessments for these areas for children in Years 1 to 3, and often they are not reported to boards or parents.

Progressing to the next knowledge and strategy stage

Some teachers and leaders are not confident about when to move children to the next number stage. In some schools, teachers usefully begin teaching children concepts from the next knowledge and strategy stage while revising concepts from the previous stage when they have mastered most of the concepts. In other cases where teachers group children depending on their knowledge and strategy stage, teachers wait until the child knows all the concepts before moving them to the next group. This type of grouping means some children’s progress will be slowed while they are retaught many concepts they already know, while waiting to learn the ones they need to move to the next stage.

Parents and whānau understanding of progress through the stages

The rate that children progress through the knowledge and strategy stages varies depending on the capability and age of the child. Generally, many children move through the first three or four stages quite quickly, and then take much longer to progress through more complex concepts in the next stages. As the stages and the child’s likely progression rate are not well known by parents and whānau, they are not easily able to understand how well their child is progressing.

Teachers’ Understanding of Progress in Literacy

Generally teachers have a good understanding of expected rates of progress in Years 1 and 2. Most teachers use running records to identify both children’s reading levels and their strategies when reading aloud. Schools are provided with texts that indicate the relevant levels when using them for shared, guided, and independent reading. 

In 2010, the introduction of Reading Standards and The Literacy Learning Progressions (Ministry of Education, 2010) gave leaders and teachers clear expectations of what children should achieve and what progress looked like. The Literacy Learning Progressions are generally well regarded by those leaders and teachers who are familiar with them, and expectations can provide both formative and summative information. Most teachers have raised their expectations of what reading and writing levels, and skills, children should achieve during early schooling. However, some teachers have difficulty getting more of their students to reach expectations.

In some schools, where many children reach or exceed expectations, teachers use a wider range of assessments to find out more about children’s decoding skills. Many of these teachers also located and used other assessments that provide more detail about children’s phonological knowledge and comprehension.

Some teachers’ lack of confidence with Reading Running Records

The Ministry’s advice to schools about Running Records explains that, for young children, Running Records should be taken only with seen texts. Some teachers are not aware of this and use unseen texts, which makes the assessment much harder. In these cases, children are often held back and engage with simple pre‑readers when they should be able to advance more quickly. In other cases teachers use commercially‑produced Running Records that have sets of comprehension questions the child must answer correctly.  This practice also limits children’s progress, as often these questions are not culturally appropriate for some New Zealand children. It is also difficult for children to read aloud and decode text, while at the same time recalling everything they have read

Teachers in all schools should use seen texts when undertaking Running Records for beginning readers, by using the readers the children have previously encountered in their class. They should also recognise that comprehension should be taught and assessed at a lower reading level than they use when teaching children such things as rereading, self‑correcting and decoding skills.

One‑size‑fits‑all teaching that ignores assessment results

In some classes, all children engage in the same type of reading activities despite assessment information showing they have different strengths and needs. For example, in some classes, all children are taught a letter a week even though their school‑entry data shows some already know the alphabet sounds and names. In other cases, all children experience the same daily phonics programme that they don’t necessarily need. These practices limit some children’s success and enjoyment with early reading as they fail to engage and challenge them.  

Literacy every day

The urgency teachers show for Year 1 children to read and write so they can fully engage in the wider curriculum varies considerably. In some schools, leaders set the expectation that guided, shared and independent reading and writing will happen every day without exception. However, in many schools, instructional reading and writing happens less often. On Fridays, literacy programmes are not as focused and often only involve whole‑class shared reading with some type of drawing or colouring‑in activity. All children should be engaged in instructional literacy activities that respond to their individual strengths and needs every school day.

Oral language

Some teachers have talked to ERO reviewers about their perceptions that children’s oral language levels seemed to be dropping when they start school. However, ERO’s 2017 report Expanding their Language – Expanding their World: Children’s oral Language (birth‑8 years) also identified that the quality of response to children’s oral language varied considerably. The table below outlines some of the findings about schools’ assessment of oral language for children up to eight years old.

Supporting oral language learning and development in primary schools (by percentage)

Well‑focused schools

  • There was both formal assessment and informal daily monitoring of oral language practices in the early months at school
  • Oral language progress was regularly shared with students and parents
  • Levels or indicators guided teacher monitoring and planning for next steps.
  • School leaders promoted the importance of oral language, monitored progress for targeted learners and refined interventions where necessary.

 

35%

Schools with some focus

  • some monitoring of oral language progress in the first year, but typically not continued in any systematic way into Years 2 and 3, except for individuals of particular concern
  • less well‑defined oral language progressions than well‑focused schools
    • little or no internal evaluation of oral language interventions and their impact.

 

36%

Schools with limited or no focus

  • no or few formal expectations for oral language development over Years 1 to 3
  • little or no monitoring or assessment of student progress in oral language learning
  • Internal evaluation was weak or non‑existent across schools in this group.

29%

This ERO report contains many examples of good practices schools should implement to improve oral language to support children and their reading and writing progress.

Working with Parents and Whānau in the First Two Years

Generally, ERO has observed teachers working more closely with parents in the first two years children are at school, than they do in later years. Projects such as the Mutukaro Project have increased the ways teachers in some schools work with parents and whānau to share information about children’s strengths, needs and interests. In many schools, teachers meet with parents before the child starts school and again a few weeks later. They share initial achievement information and discuss how well the child has settled in the class. Most junior classes also have some daily written communication focused on the reading book the child is taking home. Teachers also have informal conversations with parents when they bring or collect their child from the classroom each day.

Although ERO has found examples of teachers and parents and whānau working closely together, some leaders and teachers continue to place little value on working together in genuine learner‑centred partnerships. Many schools share general assessment results a few weeks after the child has started school, but are more inclined to tell the parent what they should do, rather than actively listen to determine the skills parents and whānau have to support the child both at home and at school.  When ERO spoke to parents who have worked in genuine partnerships with the school to support their child, the parents expressed a real gratefulness for the experience and of being so valued and involved. 

ERO agrees that all teachers should share actual assessments with parents and whānau to discuss what the child’s responses might be telling them to work on, and how they can each contribute to ongoing improvements. Such relationships help the child learn consistent and useful learning strategies at home and at school.

An example of teachers working together to improve learning in Year 1

ERO recently visited a school where the Year 1 teachers were concerned about children’s progress in their first year at school. The teachers felt they should be doing better and decided to review their practices to identify how they as teachers could improve.

The team leader formed a review team to inquire into the possible reasons that might have contributed to the Year 1 results. The review team included a board trustee, Year 1 teachers, and their resource teacher: learning and behaviour (RTLB). They identified two key areas to improve. The first related to their relationships with parents and transition to school processes. The second area identified was a lack of urgency for children to progress.

Transition to School

Feedback from parents identified some children needed more transition activities and support than others. After becoming aware of these issues, the teachers immediately changed their transition activities to respond better to those who needed extra support. In some cases, teachers engaged with a child and their parents and whānau for the whole school term before the child started school. Leaders and teachers also introduced new practices, including teachers visiting the child’s early learning service a term before the child started, and reviewing and improving the transition letter and information they sent to parents.

Their main change however, was to involve parents in their children’s learning during and immediately after the transition. Leaders recognised that to grow learner‑focused relationships with parents and whānau, they had to work with them more regularly. They wanted to take more opportunities to hear and respond to the parents’ opinions about their child’s interests, strengths and needs. They began to meet with parents to hear about and share their child’s strengths, interests, achievement, progress, goals and next steps throughout the year. Teachers wanted to take a more strengths‑based approach to focus on what the child could do, rather than what might be missing. They subsequently started new sharing‑information sessions with parents every 10 weeks for the first 40 weeks the child was at school.                

Teachers completed more comprehensive assessments. Ongoing 10‑weekly assessments were introduced to determine the child’s progress with alphabet knowledge, concepts about print, writing vocab, and their current maths strategy stage. They also undertook initial testing of oral language and some of the child’s physical skills. These assessments were shared during the 10‑weekly learner‑focused meeting with parents. During these meetings, they reviewed goals and set new ones together. Teachers shared what was focused on at school, how the child was responding and what they would do next. Parents shared information about what learning and other things were happening at home and what they could do in the future. If resources were needed for any at‑home activities, the teacher provided them.

Increasing the urgency for children to progress

Teachers wanted to make sure they had clear expectations about changes for their own teaching. They agreed to give children a greater sense of purpose, by making sure children knew more about what they were trying to achieve and when they had achieved their goals. They wanted to develop children’s awareness of the knowledge and skills they were acquiring in their literacy activities.  Teachers also aimed to extend opportunities for children to celebrate what they were achieving. They trialled ways of introducing goals and self‑reflection activities for children in each of the Year 1 classes.

We observed reading and writing lessons in Year 1 classes and saw children highly focused on their goals. The classrooms had displays featuring the goals children were currently focused on. Teachers constantly reminded children of the links between reading and writing. Before they started reading or writing, teachers asked children to look at relevant rubrics and share what they were doing well with a buddy. They then decided where they were placed on the rubric.

After the reading lesson, the children worked on a short writing activity and ERO talked to them about their goals. They explained their current focus. They were able to explain how they were progressing with spelling some basic words. They also knew their current reading level and what they had to do to read even better. Children focused on their own progress and were not competing with others. They were highly motivated and knew how they could improve.

After the teachers had introduced deliberate teaching and more specific feedback to children, they continued to collaborate across teams to monitor the impacts for children. Teachers from Year 1 classes met together for a day in each of the school holidays to continue to refine their expectations and review progress. Their achievement information clearly identified the positive impacts of changes.

Assessment in Years 4 to 8

Data from the National Monitoring Study of Student Achievement (NMSSA) highlights that more Year 4 children achieve at or above the expected curriculum level in mathematics and writing, than Year 8 children. Similarly, more Year 4 children report they enjoy learning in reading, writing and mathematics than Year 8 children. Clear achievement expectations and activities that challenge and engage students are both vital to reverse this trend.

Unless teachers know their students’ strengths, needs and interests well, and are knowledgeable about student achievement, they cannot be confident that their teaching is fully engaging students and maximising their progress.  Equally, unless leaders and trustees know how well students are achieving when compared to other New Zealand students, they cannot be confident they are setting the student on a pathway to success in secondary schooling and beyond.

Students and their families and whānau need access to high quality, robust and reliable assessment information. Once students have learnt fundamental literacy and numeracy skills, they must explore new ways to solve problems, think critically, organise their thinking and communicate their ideas so they can fully engage with the wider curriculum. At the same time, they need to know more about how they can take greater responsibility for their learning so they can understand what to focus on, and will become energised by their success.

Most formal assessment tools available for Years 4 to 8 students are designed to provide both formative and summative information for individual students, groups of students, whole­‑class and whole‑school performance. Tools such as the New Zealand Progressive Achievement Tests (PAT), the Ministry’s Progress and Consistency Tool (PaCT), and Assessment Tools for Teaching and Learning (e‑asTTle or asTTle) are aligned to The New Zealand Curriculum and provide information about how each student is achieving and progressing compared to other New Zealand students. The tools also provide comprehensive reports about each student’s mastery of specific concepts and skills.

However, the extent to which the formal assessments are used and understood by leaders and teachers is variable. In some schools, ERO identified teachers using the formal tools in some areas but not in others. Decisions were often well considered, such as in some schools where leaders had decided to help teachers to become confident in one area before moving on to another. In other cases, it was often a lack of knowledge of the tools or concerns about how the results may be used by others outside of the school that limited their use.

Understanding the benefits of using formal assessments

Some schools are using no formal assessments to compare their students’ performance with others nationally. In some of these schools, long‑term improvement plans were not in place. PLD was focused on what teachers thought they needed, rather than leaders focusing PLD on what they thought teachers needed to improve their teaching practice. Sometimes teachers participated in any PLD opportunity available because it looked interesting to them. In these schools, teachers were collecting some assessments but were often not confidently interpreting assessment data or appropriately responding to individual students’ strengths and needs.

Some schools lacked sound assessment leadership. In these schools, teachers were often instructed to use assessments the leader preferred rather than to focus on the purpose of the assessment and the benefit for students when selecting assessment tools. In some cases, the assessments leaders stipulated took more time away from teaching and had little benefit for students. As an example, teachers in these schools continued to use Running Records for every Year 1 to 8 student every term even though this assessment provided no useful information for the majority of their students who were fluent readers.  (Running Records are meant for non‑fluent or beginning readers). In other cases, teachers were instructed to have every student complete a formal writing assessment each term that teachers then marked, analysed and moderated, despite having high quality writing assessments records from ongoing observations that already outlined what the child had mastered that term. Many leaders required more support to make sure the assessments they selected were both useful, valid, reliable and manageable.

Teachers and leaders do not always fully understand the ways they can use asTTle tools to support and reduce the amount of assessments. For example, in some schools teachers use asTTle for pre‑ and post‑tests for every mathematics topic or unit. Teachers and students were not able to use any information from the post‑test as they had already moved onto the next topic.  The teachers didn’t understand the feature of asTTle that allows students’ results to be meaningfully compared across schools and year groups, over time, even if they sit a different test.  This means it is not necessary to have students repeat an asTTle test as a post‑unit test. 

As an example, if the student sits a geometry pre‑test some of the items are designed to establish what level the student is achieving overall. Teachers would need to be concerned if every test showed the student was achieving at the same sublevel all year (ie 3b). However if subtests show the student has progressed to the next sublevel (3p or 3a) in any of the pre‑tests, the teacher can see the child is progressing. The major reason for the comparability is that the difficulty of all items has been carefully estimated (using item response theory) and these difficulties are considered within the asTTle application during the scoring process.

In some schools, teachers were taking considerable time to write and manage their own mathematics pre‑ and post‑tests. These results were not as reliably comparable to national curriculum levels or useful for the next teaching unit. The post‑test provided little benefit for students, especially those results that showed the student had made little progress. Some leaders and teachers would benefit from additional support to help them understand how ongoing asTTle assessments can reduce their workload and contribute to improved outcomes for students.

Assessment Analysis Confusion

ERO continues to encounter a small number of schools who collect information from both formal and informal assessments, but their limited understanding of the tools and data analysis means they use the assessment tools inappropriately.

Using the assessments for summative purposes only

In some schools, although the results from PATs are collated and reported to leaders and boards, ERO found little evidence of changed practices in the classroom. In these schools, long‑term teaching plans were not adjusted to take account of assessment results for the current students. Instead, teachers continued to use previously determined programmes and timeframes. 

Some schools tended to overuse PATs for summative purposes. The stanine norms are set for tests undertaken in February and early March. Testing at other times is not desirable. However, if testing is done at other times, progress should not be compared to norms, but should focus on a student’s progress on the scale. If schools re‑test students in November, for example, they should use the norms from the next year level.  However, ERO found some schools using the February/March stanine norms for end‑of‑year testing (or other months). This obviously exaggerated progress during the year and caused an achievement dip again at the beginning of the following year. In some cases, leaders had not recognised this achievement trend, or blamed the summer holiday slump for the dip.

Reporting stanines

This problem was more common before schools began reporting to their board in relation to the National Standards, but still occurs sometimes. Some schools use stanines when reporting their Supplementary Test of Achievement in Reading (STAR) results, PAT or other results, without including the percentile range.  This made results appear more positive, as students scoring stanine 4 were identified as average in reports to the board despite this stanine including students scoring as low as 23 percent. 

Statistical description of stanine scores



Stanine

Percentile Rank Range

Verbal Description

9

96

Outstanding 4%

8

89-95

Above Average 19%

7

77-88

6

60-76

 

Average 54%

5

40-59

4

23-39

3

11-22

Below average 19%

2

4-10

1

<4

Low 4%

 


Improvement‑focused schools used scale scores that were more useful for leaders and boards, as they made it possible to compare a student’s achievement with nationally representative groups of students across different year levels.  Each PAT has a different scale score. The mathematic PAT scale score is shown here. Teachers also used the scale score to determine each student’s ability level and how far they had progressed since the previous assessment.

Understanding tool‑generated assessment reports

asTTle and e‑asTTle generate a wide range of reports, such as individual and group pathway results. Schools can also pay for reports generated from PAT results by the New Zealand Council for Educational Research (NZCER). Considerable information is provided about the strengths and weaknesses of each child, class and year level. However, some teachers and leaders had a limited understanding of how to:

  • interpret and use all the information provided
  • access the information
  • transfer the information into their student management system (SMS).

At the other extreme where teachers knew how to use these reports well, they were fully discussed with each student and to a lesser extent with their parents and whānau. Schools, leaders, teachers and students were clear about what they had mastered, what they needed to focus on next, and how much they had improved.

Successes and Challenges from across Primary School Year Levels

Using assessment to improve teaching practice

In many schools, leaders and teachers regularly used assessment information to inquire into their practice. Many inquiries reflected the school’s charter targets or followed an individual or group of teachers’ interests. Often teachers sought and used additional assessments for more fine‑grained information about the strengths and needs of a small group of students. They repeated the assessments to identify how the programme was affecting those students. In some schools, these inquiries were carefully managed and coordinated to make sure successful practices were extended across the school, or a cluster, to benefit more students. This good practice should apply in every school.

Students’ Involvement in Assessment

Approaches that involve students in using assessment for learning have increased considerably in the past decade. ERO has spoken with many students who could confidently explain what they had recently mastered, what they were presently striving for, and what they were going to focus on next. They understood how formal assessment would benefit them, and had discussed the results with their teacher. In a few instances ERO was shown students’ PowerPoint presentations explaining their asTTle results to their parents and whānau.

In the best instance, teachers worked closely with students to focus on the specific skills and concepts they needed to develop. Students and teachers then set and monitored their goals. Effective teachers helped set goals judiciously, so each student was challenged but not overwhelmed. Teaching the student experienced supported and aligned with the goals, and gave students many opportunities to practise new skills. If a student needed additional support, assessments were also shared with their parents and whānau, and ways to help the student at home and at schools were mutually agreed. Teachers and peers (of both students and parents in some cases) gave targeted feedback related to the goals. The teacher and the student together decided and recorded when the goal was met. These goals were not time bound but were reviewed regularly, celebrated when reached, and new goals were then mutually developed. The information was then used to show how the student progressed over the year, and was collated and included in robust achievement reports to the board.

In less successful schools, when assessment was shared with students, opportunities were often missed to improve learning, or it negatively impacted on a student’s learning and/or self‑efficacy. Examples of such poor practice included:

  • having students participate in assessments with no understanding of the purpose of, or results from, the assessment
  • setting goals with students without providing learning opportunities that taught the skills and concepts needed to master those goals
  • providing no or poor quality feedback to the student about their goals
  • setting up class displays or goal sheets that gave students who were below expectation, an overwhelming number of goals to conquer to achieve success and potentially publically shamed students working at the lowest levels
  • telling students what their goals were and then not referring to them again until it was time to measure progress
  • leaving the student feeling they were solely responsible for poor performance
  • demonstrating low expectations for a student by praising poor quality work or effort.

Parents’ and Whānau Understanding of their Child’s Achievement and Progress

The quality of assessment information shared with parents and whānau continues to vary considerably. Many schools use parent interviews and conferences, written reports, and portfolios or other students’ work samples to share information. Many also use computer software that helps children share some of their schoolwork, and in some cases includes comments from the teacher. Most primary school leaders report high levels of attendance at parent interviews, and positive responses from parents and whānau resulting from easy access to their child’s work online.

In a few schools, teachers shared the actual assessments the child completed with parents and whānau (sometimes with the student present). Together, they looked at the child’s responses and gave their views of what they indicated, and set goals for the future. Samples of work demonstrating the child’s mastery of the goals were also shared with parents and whānau, either online, or in portfolios or exercise books. Where necessary, teachers helped parents and whānau to understand the assessments and informed them about any future assessments.  When parents from these schools spoke with ERO, they showed they were able to understand the assessment information and could tell us about what their child was focused on, how they as parents had helped, and what progress they had made. 

However, in many other cases, parents and whānau were not as well informed about their child’s achievements. Before the introduction of National Standards, reports provided little information about students’ achievement compared to expectation, and had little information about what the expectations were. Over the time that National Standards were used for reporting to parents and whānau, teachers were still developing confidence with making and reporting accurate overall teacher judgements about a child’s achievement. Further work is still required to make sure all parents and whānau are provided with information about expected achievement levels for their children including understanding how they are achieving and progressing with their own goals and relative to children in other schools nationally.

Generally, teachers were less inclined to use formal assessment results to make their judgement about a child’s overall achievement. A National Standards: School Sample Monitoring & Evaluation Project in 2011, identified the sources of assessment information teachers rated as most important as specific class observations in reading, writing, and mathematics, instructional text levels in reading, the collection of samples in writing, and numeracy assessment results in mathematics. Encouraging teachers to also value making comparisons among their students (and others nationally), and then accurately reporting these results to parents and whānau, is key to keeping them well informed.

Although leaders are increasingly involving parents and whānau of students at risk of not achieving well in additional meetings and learner‑centred conversations, some leaders are yet to understand the positive benefits for students when these partnerships are in place. When the partnerships worked, teachers held extra meetings to explain what additional activities they were providing for the child, and provided resources for the child to practise at home. In schools with genuine learning partnerships, necessary additional resources were provided for parents to use at home. Teachers sought and valued parents’ perspectives about how to further support the child.  Many schools that worked in partnership with parents had evidence of accelerated progress. To help equalise the balance of power, teachers had respectfully considered the time and place of meetings as well as the environment where they met together.

Examples of good practice

Careful selection and use of reading assessments

Teachers had reviewed and reduced the number of reading assessments they used. They wanted to know what they should spend time teaching and what the children already knew. They also aimed to fully use the information gained from a small number of assessments, rather than collect a lot of information that wasn’t fully used. They accessed a New Zealand Council of Educational Research (NZCER) webinar to extend their data literacy and analysis of some of the standardised PATs they used. They looked for, and noticed, achievement patterns and trends, and then together planned teaching to address the gaps identified. Thoroughly examining questions children struggled with helped them to decide on the deliberate teaching they should focus on. They considered what the children would need to know to answer that question correctly. This provided useful insights to plan activities to match students’ interests and needs.

 

Teachers selected assessment tasks to check how well children applied the strategies they had been taught. ERO evaluators attended a syndicate meeting where a teacher shared the results from a recent assessment. The task focused on children’s confidence answering inference questions and was selected from the Assessment Resource Banks (ARBs). The teacher acknowledged she should still continue the focus with many of the children she was working with who needed to accelerate their progress.

 

Children and teachers knowing and reflecting on achievement and progress
Leaders and teachers identified that, to have agency, students must understand the learning progressions, recognise what they have mastered, and know what to do next. So they broke the curriculum into bite‑sized portions and progressions and then introduced ‘learning pathways’ for use in reading, writing and mathematics.

Using the pathways, the children identified and then highlighted in yellow what they had already accomplished, proof of capability in purple, and next steps in green. Teachers and leaders also examined their own assessment beliefs and practices to make sure they supported learner agency. They identified the following key principles:

- assessment, both formal and informal, helps teachers and students identify trends in achievement and progress
- teachers and children gather, analyse, and use information to adjust their teaching or learning
- assessment is a collaboration between teacher and student, to determine student achievement and next steps
- when children are involved in decisions about assessment, they will value and use the results to inform their next learning steps.

Following the introduction of this more collaborative approach to assessment, the children became familiar with and understood the learning progressions, and they used them with some confidence to develop goals. Children also reviewed their progress, and set goals, against Key Competencies. They spoke knowledgably about ‘testing to see where we are’.

Sharing assessment information with parents

The school’s leaders had a strong belief parents have a right to access important information about their children’s learning, achievement and progress. When a new family came to the school, leaders and teachers shared everything. For example, teachers displayed the junior reading levels as a colour wheel, and fully explained the numeracy stages so “parents didn’t have to operate in a fog”. Leaders showed every space in the school to show everything was shared and nothing was hidden.

At all other parent conferences, teachers shared all assessments and the children’s responses with their parents. Teachers and parents would:

- discuss what an assessment revealed
- jointly decide the child’s next steps as specific learning goals
- determine how the parents could support the child’s learning at home and how the teacher would support the learning at school.

Teachers also gave parents appropriate resources to focus on the agreed learning goals at home.

Children maintained portfolios with evidence of their learning in reading, writing, mathematics and inquiry topics and regularly shared them. To increase their understanding of their own learning, the expectation was that as children moved through the school, they would increasingly be involved in assessing their own work. In Year 1, work samples in their portfolios would be accompanied by teacher comments. In Year 2, the teacher would write, with the child, why they had chosen to share this piece of work and how it related to the success criteria. From Year 3 onwards, students were responsible for explaining and recording why they had chosen to share each different piece of evidence. In portfolios for children from Year 6 and above, we saw that children were also confidently writing their next steps for each of their work samples. This process, used with the portfolios, helped children understand what they had achieved. It also simplified the assessment and tracking process for teachers and highlighted the child’s progress to parents.

Students with Special Needs and Abilities

Students with special needs

ERO’s national reports from recent years highlight considerable improvements in the ways schools manage their processes to support special needs students. By 2015, almost all of the schools reviewed had systems, guidelines and key practices to support students with special education needs. They had relevant strategies in place, had a Special Education Needs Co‑ordinator (SENCO) or head of learning support to coordinate and oversee provisions, had effective transition processes, and had built relevant staff capability.  Special education needs registers were well used to identify resources and teaching strategies, and to ensure appropriate planning for students as they moved from one teacher to the next. Registers were updated regularly as students progressed and their needs changed.

Most schools effectively supported special needs students as they transitioned to the school. Their processes involved staff, parents, specialist teachers and specialists with knowledge or understanding of the student’s needs. SENCOs often visited the early learning service or previous school to talk to staff and observe the child in their familiar setting. Some developed a detailed transition plan and information for the child’s next teacher to help them understand the particular special education needs and how they could best support the child’s learning and wellbeing.

Most schools had robust systems for identifying these students’ specific needs. SENCOs used a range of assessment and diagnostic tools, and developed appropriate programmes and strategies to meet these needs. Many schools had developed IEPs that met at least some of the Ministry’s guidelines for quality. Features of good IEPs included:

  • goals based on data and focused on what the student could do, and their strengths and interests
  • well‑developed objectives for students’ learning, social, communication, physical, sensory, behaviour and life skills
  • SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time‑bound) goals 3, to enable the school to show learning, progress and next steps
  • teaching strategies and clear responsibilities for staff
  • regular review of goals with parents, staff, specialist teachers, specialists, and sometimes students.

Leaders and teachers in many schools were not as confident about collecting and using information about the outcomes of their programmes. Most collected information about the types of activities the children were involved in. However, some schools provided more than anecdotal evidence of outcomes for students with special education needs. Their focus on progress and achievement resulted in useful improvement such as:

  • improving tracking of student outcomes so that progress within Level 1 of the curriculum was more evident
  • providing PLD for staff on effective teaching strategies
  • ongoing modification of programmes
  • providing more release time for SENCOs to carry out their roles
  • improving IEPs and strengthening goal setting.

Schools could more usefully collate and provide information about the number of IEP goals set for their students with special education needs, how many were achieved and resources needed for the remaining or next learning goals.

Although boards often allocate significant funding for children with special needs, many were not well informed about the impact of their resourcing on the progress and achievement of these students with special education needs. Reports to boards mostly focused on what is provided for the students rather than outcomes for students or the effectiveness of the school’s practices. Leaders and SENCOs were not confident with systems to share information about students and their progress. Some leaders believed they were breaching a child’s privacy if they shared the outcomes and progress of a small number of students where the individual child could be recognised. During reviews in individual schools ERO has reminded many leaders of how to use board in‑committee procedures to enable such reporting and discussion.

Gifted and talented students

The ERO report Schools Provision for Gifted and Talented Students (ERO, 2008) showed that assessment processes to identify gifted and talented students were not strong in many schools. Most schools did not use, or only used partially, a variety of assessment information to show gifted and talented students’ achievement and progress. Some schools drew on both formal and informal methods of identification, made decisions based on multiple sources, rather than just one or two methods, and included both potential and actual or demonstrated performance in a gift or talent. However, most schools did not use either formal or informal methods, failed to triangulate findings, and did not consider both potential and demonstrated performance when making a decision about giftedness and talents.

Most schools were not identifying gifted and talented students early enough in their time at the school, nor were they doing so on an ongoing basis. The main challenges were having processes to identify gifted and talented students early on in their time at the school.

The use of both summative and formative assessment to encourage and demonstrate students’ achievement and progress, was important for promoting positive outcomes for gifted and talented students. Teachers’ use of good assessment practices and achievement information across the variety of gifts and talents, as well as the teacher’s own professional judgement, helped identify students’ next steps for learning. However, only some schools were able to demonstrate gifted and talented students’ achievement and progress from a range of assessment information. Many students were not given feedback that allowed them to develop their gifts or talents.

In some schools, gifted and talented students go to one‑ or two‑day programmes away from the school, provided by an external agency. Boards usually provide funds for all or some of the students attending these out‑of‑school programmes. However, boards rarely receive any information about outcomes for these students. Occasionally the SENCO may report some of the activities students were involved in. Boards should expect to receive more comprehensive reports about students’ achievement, progress and next steps to help them with decisions about continued provision of funds for out‑of‑school programmes.

Supporting children at risk of underachieving

Many of the processes already discussed in this report have improved support for students at risk of not achieving. Leaders and teachers working in genuine learning partnership with parents of these children have seen significant improvements for these students. Improved target setting has seen an increased focus on these students, with about half the schools trialling new approaches to respond to identified needs.

In the remaining schools teachers continued to apply the same practices used before, or there was no clear understanding of different stakeholders’ responsibilities to improve outcomes for individual or groups of students.  More work is needed to introduce universal assessment and teaching practices in Year 1 and beyond that reduce reliance on out‑of‑class interventions for so many students, and to ensure interventions are providing long‑term benefits for the students participating in them.  More must also be done to improve early outcomes for Māori students.

ERO has found that some Year 1 teachers undertake assessments that identify students in their class who are not achieving, without subsequently taking responsive action to target teaching and learning.  In such cases, the teachers rely on interventions such as Reading Recovery (RR) rather than taking immediate responsibility for having all students succeed in their classroom. There remains an assumption that all students that have not progressed initially when learning to read will participate in RR and will succeed.

ERO has found many teachers lack confidence to support students experiencing early reading difficulties.  Although some know about additional assessments to more specifically identify the specific strengths and needs of students at risk of not achieving, they are not known or used by all teachers. In other cases while teachers use assessments that identify a student’s learning needs, the teacher may have limited knowledge of the strategies they should use to help the student make progress.

Somewhere between 60 and 65 percent of primary schools implement the RR programme.  However teachers should not assume that such an intervention programme, or other teachers, will take over their responsibility for student achievement and progress.   Teachers in Year 1 need to increase their professional knowledge and ability to better assess and profile student’s strengths and weaknesses, including all aspects of language and comprehension.  This will ensure that effective teaching strategies can be universally employed within the classroom at an early stage.  

Improved assessment and earlier focused teaching would also help make sure the targeting of children for RR is more precise.  Considerable evidence shows RR is more effective for some students than others. For example, RR is shown to be more successful for students in higher decile schools than in low decile schools. New Zealand data indicates that Māori and Pacific students, and those from low decile schools were less likely to have been successfully discontinued from RR, and more likely to be referred on for further specialist help.

Recent data also suggests that the gains seen during the RR programme may not be sustained.  New Zealand research that examined results of the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) found that, three years after participating in RR, students had a much lower score (493.10) than those that had not participated (568.05).  Another recent evaluation examined the impact of RR on students’ outcomes in NSW government schools. The evaluation found some evidence that RR has a modest short‑term effect on reading skills among the lowest performing students. However, researchers found that RR does not appear to be an effective intervention for students that begin Year 1 with more proficient literacy skills. In the longer‑term, there was no evidence of any positive effects of RR on students' reading performance in Year 3.  Given the education sector’s current investment in RR, these issues need further investigation in the New Zealand context.  

New research is providing teachers with useful teaching strategies, and ERO has seen considerable gains for students in some schools who work with targeted students within the classroom. In these schools, leaders have chosen to support teachers to take responsibility for the success of every student in their classroom, teaching team and/or across the school, rather than rely on out of class interventions. Teachers engage with many different, targeted PLD programmes to improve their teaching practice, in particular focusing on their understanding of the technical aspects of teaching reading, and how children learn.  Results for Year 1 students improve considerably when teachers determine whether the student needs more focus on decoding, fluency, or comprehension and provides targeted teaching to match the student’s needs.

In schools successfully raising the reading achievement levels of many young readers, teachers have undertaken individual or group inquiries to research and implement the necessary assessments and teaching strategies to lift performance. Teachers undertake inquiries into what worked for their students and then share that knowledge and practice across the school. Teachers work together to analyse assessment data and propose new strategies for colleagues.

Supporting students to transition to school

ERO’s Report Evaluation at a Glance: Transitions from Primary to Secondary School (ERO, 2012d) points out that young people who do not experience school support during the transition from primary to secondary school are at greater risk of disengaging from learning. Transitions between primary schools can also contribute to negative outcomes for students.  The report highlights that transitions are not just a defined period of time in which specific orientation activities are put in place to support students to know about school systems, their teachers and their peers. Transitions take time, and students respond differently as they adjust to a changed environment, with different systems, teachers and peers. ERO found that transitions are most successful for students where there is a school‑wide culture to progressively support them through ongoing educational and social changes.

Some primary schools with high levels of transience effectively support these students by quickly carrying out key assessments at entry.  The teacher and child could immediately build on what they already knew and what they needed to focus on next. If assessments showed the student had similar learning needs to other students identified for support as part of the school’s charter, they were added to the group.  The board allocated additional resources to support the larger group as necessary. In some instances, an additional target group or target was established to cater for new learning needs identified from the assessment of the transient students.

ERO has identified that although students with special needs are often well supported when they transition to school, other students at risk of not achieving may not be as well catered for. In many schools transient students, their parents and whānau are treated the same as all other students. ERO has argued that more should be done to identify these students learning needs before they start school, so their strengths, interests and needs are used to help them settle and learn quickly (ERO, 2017a).

Sharing of information between schools to support transient students is limited. When students move to a new school, few arrive with assessment information their teacher can access immediately. Although schools and the Ministry have put considerable effort into compatible software systems, little electronic information is quickly shared between schools. Some students take portfolios and work samples to their new school. When others arrive with no information, teachers undertake some formal assessments as soon as possible. The ease of transition for students would improve considerably if all schools were able to share all the student’s assessment information electronically, either before or immediately after they start at the new school. Tools such as using a student Facebook page can be used to ensure that rich assessment information and work examples are not lost, particularly for those learners who may be highly transient, and allow the student to maintain a high level of agency and control over who has access to their information.

The inconsistent quality of support for transient students in primary schools also indicates leaders in some schools were considerably more focused on progress towards equity and excellence than others. Some primary schools have high numbers of transient students. During reviews of individual schools, ERO has seen highly variable practice in the ways leaders and teachers use assessment to support these students, some of whom may move schools many times. Some principals reported it was particularly difficult to prepare useful and meaningful information on school‑wide trends when a considerable proportion of the roll was made up of students who moved schools frequently.

In a few schools, leaders prepared achievement reports that separated results for students who had attended the school since they were five and those who had moved to the school at some other age. In the worst instances they prepared comments and recommendations related only to the data set for non‑transient students, ignoring the other data set.  Many children who move schools during their primary school years are achieving and progressing well. However, leaders should encourage an additional focus on our most vulnerable children who frequently transition to different schools. More should also be done so leaders and teachers can access assessment data from one school as soon as a student moves to the next school.

Assessment Across the Curriculum

A feature of The New Zealand Curriculum is the expectation that schools will review and design their own local school curriculum in light of what they know about their learners. From 2010 onwards, the notion of a curriculum that responds to all learners is one that schools were expected to embrace, as they worked to design and implement their school’s curriculum.

Leaders and teachers require a good understanding of all aspects of the NZC before they are able to design, teach, assess and review their local curriculum. ERO’s findings indicate that some leaders and teachers’ poor understanding of parts of the NZC limits their ability to either teach or assess skills and concepts from it.

Understanding and implementing The New Zealand Curriculum in primary schools

The last review of the NZC was completed in 2007. From 2008, schools were expected to give full effect to the NZC, using support materials and resources to guide their progress as they transitioned.

In the 2010 report, Preparing to Give Effect to the New Zealand Curriculum (ERO, 2010), ERO found that about 76 percent of schools in the sample were managing curriculum change well. Sixty‑three percent of the 245 primary and secondary schools sampled were making good progress, and a further 13 percent were already giving full effect to changes. Of the remaining 24 percent, only three percent had not yet begun to give effect to the NZC. In some of these schools, individual teachers had implemented some of the new processes, such as integrating new technologies, being guided by the curriculum principles, and integrating key competencies.

The table below shows the percentage of leaders’ progress with implementing The New Zealand Curriculum in both primary and secondary schools.

The table indicates many schools still had actions to complete before they could fully implement the curriculum.

In 2010, when primary schools were expected to implement the new curriculum, the literacy and mathematics National Standards were also introduced. Some of the schools that were well advanced with planning to implement the NZC were able to also focus on National Standards. However, ERO found that some leaders still had considerable work to do to use the NZC and to improve assessment practice, particularly the collection and use of student achievement information as part of self‑review. Some leaders’ limited capacity to introduce two major changes into their school at the same time reduced their understanding of all parts of the NZC. 

Interpreting the objectives

Many of the curriculum objectives are broad and deliberately able to be interpreted in different ways as shown here for Level 3 Social Studies objectives. Leaders and teachers in some of the schools where curriculum areas, such as science and social studies, are taught well have spent considerable time interpreting  curriculum objectives.

 

Where teachers have worked together to interpret the objectives in the learning areas, leaders report their teachers have a greater understanding of the teaching points they should consider. However, some schools haven’t completed this type of work. Teachers’ workload would be considerably reduced if curriculum leaders from across New Zealand worked together to explain the objectives in greater detail for both teachers and students in all schools. Without such understanding, the quality of any assessment in many of the curriculum areas is likely to be of little value.

Focusing on literacy and mathematics

Over recent years, leaders and teachers have focused on developing teachers’ confidence with using reading, writing and mathematics assessments, because students cannot fully engage with the curriculum without being literate and numerate. Literacy and mathematics should continue to be given priority in primary schools’ curriculum.

The revised curriculum and the National Administration Guidelines (NAGs) guide schools to gather and evaluate the achievement and progress of students while giving priority to:

  • literacy and numeracy in Years 1 to 8
  • the breadth and depth of learning related to the needs abilities and interests of students
  • the nature of the school’s curriculum and the scope of The New Zealand Curriculum.

Schools are also expected to use assessment to identify and address the needs of students who are not achieving, at risk of not achieving, or have special needs; and to identify aspects of the curriculum that require attention.

The part of NAG 1 that mandates schools to give priority to the breadth and depth of learning related to the needs, abilities and interests of students, the nature of the school’s curriculum and the scope of The New Zealand Curriculum, allows leaders to decide what their teachers teach and assess, and what they choose to teach in areas other than literacy and numeracy. Previously, teachers recorded assessments across the curriculum using checklists for every Achievement Objective from across The New Zealand Curriculum.

Lessons learnt from previous practices for assessing across the curriculum

Many of the assessment practices and approaches used previously when teachers assessed across the wider curriculum, were neither useful nor manageable. The pages of checklists teachers had to complete for each student often took time away from teaching and had limited use for planning the next teaching programmes. The worst example was seen in physical education where teachers were expected to judge how well children were performing multiple skills in the swimming pool or with gymnastic equipment, while also teaching the whole class and keeping them safe from physical injury. Some teachers also created end‑of‑unit‑tests to check what the child could recall at the end of social studies, science and health lessons that were not useful for decisions about future teaching.

Possibilities for extending assessment

Many of the types of assessment teachers used at the beginning of this century are no longer relevant as we have moved the emphasis from knowledge gained to using knowledge to carry out meaningful tasks. Assessment should focus more on students’ ability to adapt their skills and responses to a variety of different situations and settings. The science and technology curriculum areas have some objectives at each curriculum level that increase opportunities for students to apply their skills and knowledge in different settings that teachers could be supported to assess.

Beginning any assessment changes by prioritising the assessment of some objectives in these two curriculum areas would also encourage schools to promote teaching and learning of STEM (science technology, engineering and mathematics) skills that encourage innovation, and are already in demand in tertiary education and the workforce.  For example, the Nature of Science strand outlines developing competencies in: investigating in science, communicating in science, and participating and contributing, where students are expected to apply their skills and knowledge across all the science strands.

Many teachers need considerable support to successfully teach and then assess outcomes in science. ERO has found that science is not yet well taught in many schools. ERO’s 2012 report Science in The New Zealand Curriculum Year 5 to 8 (ERO, 2012e) identified that effective practice in science teaching and learning was evident in less than a third of the 100 schools sampled. In effective primary schools’ science programmes, teachers successfully integrated science teaching with literacy and mathematics teaching, providing students with the specialist language and mathematics skills that supported their science learning. These teachers were able to successfully use an inquiry learning approach that maintained the integrity of the science.

In many schools students experienced knowledge‑based programmes rather than interactive, investigative approaches, and did not have opportunities to learn concepts from the Nature of Science strand. Although many science resources were available to teachers, most were not accessing or using them. Teachers had not participated in PLD to develop their science teaching.

The technology achievement objectives outline opportunities for students to innovatively apply their knowledge and skills in different situations and settings. Most Years 7 and 8 children already participate in technology programmes taken by specialist teachers in intermediate or secondary schools, and are already likely to have assessments completed for some technology objectives. Teachers in Years 1 to 6 are likely to need additional PLD and resources to help them with teaching and assessment of the parts of the technology curriculum that are relevant for their students.

Focusing on the Key Competencies

The key competencies in the NZC are recognised capabilities for living and lifelong learning. Students are expected to be challenged and supported to develop them in contexts increasingly wide ranging and complex. Teachers are expected to provide authentic opportunities for students to develop the competencies and recognise when, how and why they have used them. The five key competencies are:

  • thinking
  • using language symbols and texts
  • managing self
  • relating to others
  • participating and contributing.

Traditional methods of testing or observing students are not appropriate for assessing the key competencies. Competencies, like dispositions, are intended to be part of teaching and learning but were never intended to be assessed in a pass/fail manner. If students are to develop the competencies and recognise when they have used them for living and lifelong learning, they have to be fully included in thinking about and determining their own success with those competencies. This means involving them in identifying the knowledge and skills they would need to successfully demonstrate a particular competency in a specific setting. Students are supported to do this when their teachers model the use of the relevant knowledge and skills.   

Hipkins states “Assessment needs to help them [students] build coherent narratives about their identities as people who can practise, persist, and overcome obstacles to immediate learning success. Students need opportunities to apply what they know and can do in more complex and demanding contexts. The assessment focus is on strengthening key competencies (which everyone already has in some measure), not on measuring comparative “abilities” as if these are fixed qualities of individual learners.                            

Many primary schools correctly focus on opportunities for students to develop the key competencies outlined in The New Zealand Curriculum. In some instances, teachers have included links to the competencies by highlighting how a key competency was demonstrated in students’ work samples, learning logs, portfolios or rich learning tasks.

However, in some other schools, teachers have developed checklists showing how confident a child is with each of the competencies. Such checklists and corresponding reports to parents about whether a child is above or below expectation with the competencies are often inappropriate, as teachers are unlikely to have been able to reliably judge how students manage them in a variety of settings. There are also no agreed expectations of students’ developing competencies at each year level. Schools using such checklists that teachers fill in limit students’ opportunities to develop their identity as a person who can persist with something to succeed in their learning.

The NZC provides many opportunities for children to develop the competencies and recognise when, how and why they have used them in a wide variety of settings. For example, students can consider and apply a vast array of knowledge and skills to successfully relate to others when:

  • learning about their own wellbeing in health and the physical education programme
  • taking action as an informed and responsible citizen in social sciences activities
  • working with peers to solve mathematics, science and technology problems.

As students may demonstrate differing levels of success with the competencies when learning about different learning areas, or when working independently or in a group, they should have opportunities to discuss and sometimes record how they demonstrated any of the competencies through authentic activities in different settings.

The challenge for schools is to find a way to report or share a student’s developing competencies. Schools that use some type of digital or hard copy learning logs where children share their learning and outline what the learning demonstrates are already able, or should need few changes, to effectively report to parents about their child’s development of each of the key competencies. Further direction is required for schools using narrower assessment approaches.