The Standardised Testing Debate A Detriment to New Zealand’s Children

The Standardised Testing Debate: A Detriment to New Zealand’s Children?

As nations around the globe strive to enhance their education systems, the merits of standardised testing have come under scrutiny.  The recent education plan proposal by the National party to implement standardised tests for students in Years 3 through to 8 in New Zealand has stoked this debate further.  The controversy surrounding the Primary School SATs in the UK, and standardised testing regime in the USA, provide apt case studies to consider the potential pitfalls of such an approach.

The UK SATs Controversy: A Cautionary Tale

In the UK, the Standard Assessment Tests (SATs) have faced considerable criticism for their problematic impact on student wellbeing.  A recent incident involving a test paper with distressing content adapted from a New York Times article sent shockwaves through the education sector.  The test was not only criticised for its daunting difficulty level but also for its content which was perceived as ‘miserable, scary and quite middle class’.  These criticisms highlight the potential negative impact that standardised tests, if poorly designed, can have on students’ emotional wellbeing.

The US Standardised Testing System: A Crisis of Play?

If we look at the United States, we see a similar situation, but with additional layers of complexity.  It’s not just the content and difficulty level of standardised tests that have been questioned, but also the time allocated for the preparation of such tests.  A trend is emerging across many states where recess times – traditionally seen as a vital part of a child’s school day – are being significantly reduced, or even eliminated, to create more room for test preparation.  This elimination is just that – no break times at all through the school day for children to have a gap between lessons.  In some states, teachers are reprimanded for scheduling ‘recess’ in their planning formats – with superintendents who inspect school compliance reviewing school processes in their area.  Legislation in many states restricts recess to no more than 30 minutes, total, for the school day. 

Recess: Wasted Learning Time or Essential Break?

Recess is often viewed by educators as an essential part of the school day, providing children with much-needed breaks to relax, play and develop critical social skills.  However, the pressures to prepare students for standardised tests have led some schools to consider these breaks as ‘wasted’ learning time.  There’s a growing concern that the elimination or reduction of recess is putting children’s social, emotional, and physical wellbeing at risk.  Obesity rates are increasing in children, stress is high, and physical competencies, such as balancing, jumping, and catching a ball are all declining.  Students are sedentary for much of their school day. 

Longer School Days: More Harm that Good?

Adding to the controversy is the move by some states to extend the school day to fit in more learning and test preparation.  While on the surface this might seem a viable solution to raise academic achievement, it risks neglecting the importance of balanced school ife.  Overly long school days could potentially lead to burnout and increase stress levels among students.  Research has shown that breaks and downtime are crucial for students’ cognitive functioning and overall wellbeing. 

The Global Recess Alliance: Advocates for Play

Adding an international perspective to this debate is the Global Recess Alliance, a collective of scholars, health professionals, and advocates for children’s rights who champion the crucial role of recess in a child’s life.  This group takes its mandate from Article 31 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which stipulates that every child has the right to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to their age, and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts.

The Global Recess Alliance works tirelessly to protect and promote these rights, reinforcing the importance of playtime in children’s educational and overall development.  The organisation argues that recess is not an expendable time that can be substituted for additional academic instruction but an essential component of a balanced education.

They aim to challenge the trend seen in many countries, including the US, of reducing or eliminating recess in the name of academic achievement.  By doing so, the Global Recess Alliance offers a valuable counterpoint to the push for more standardised testing and a longer school day, emphasizing the importance of holistic development and health and wellbeing of the child as paramount in any education system.

Relevance for New Zealand’s Proposed Testing

New Zealand’s proposed introduction of standardised tests could be heading towards a similar trajectory, with serious potential repercussions for students’ mental health and overall development.  In 2016, Year 11 students were left in tears when asked to complete a complex algebraic problem; 2019 saw criticism raised at a geometrically impossible NCEA Level 2 examination question; and most recently, the trial NCEA literacy and numeracy tests have been identified as ‘too hard’ for many students.   These scenarios underline the risks of an overly rigorous testing regime that could discourage students’ passion for learning and hamper their academic confidence.

Cultural Relevance: Critical for New Zealand’s Diverse Student Body

Moreover, the standardised testing approach may be incompatible with the cultural diversity that characterises New Zealand’s classrooms.  The trials of the new NCEA literacy and numeracy tests, in particular, have raised concerns about their lack of cultural relevance, leading to demoralising experiences for students in the Cook Islands and Niue.  The UK SATs controversy reiterates the necessity of ensuring that test content is culturally pertinent and meaningful for students.

In a country steeped in rich Māori heritage and a blend of other cultures, a standardised testing system that overlooks this cultural diversity could unintentionally marginalise the experiences, knowledge, and perspectives of these cultures.  The need to promote cultural equity in education is not just about making tests more accessible to Māori learners and other culturally diverse students; it’s about validating their identities and ensuring they feel included and valued. 

Conclusion: Testing or Trauma?

It is worrying that the proposed education plan seems primarily focused on enhancing literacy and numeracy levels, with little regard for the potential impact of testing on students’ broader learning experience. The UK and US experiences underline the potentially harmful consequences of an overly rigid standardised testing regime. Standardised testing, while useful for monitoring progress and effectiveness, should not undermine a comprehensive, diverse, and inclusive learning experience that respects New Zealand’s unique cultural mosaic.   

Education systems, including that of New Zealand, need to consider these broader impacts on children’s wellbeing in their pursuit of academic achievement, and ensure that they provide a balanced, holistic approach to learning that values play and downtime just as much as academic achievement.  The focus should be on creating an environment that fosters overall growth, not just preparing students to pass tests.