National Standards and the non-standard child

Today was the ‘warning! National Standard garbage ahead’ edition of the school newsletter. The principal (a wonderful man, who does not deserve the garbage that our education system throws at school teachers and administrators) wrote a long and comforting spiel about how interim reporting is coming up next term, and for several reasons we as parents should not get wound up about the contents of these reports.

He raised some good points. Importantly, a standard is designed to be measured just once, at the end of the year, but is mandated to be reported on twice, once half-way through the year and again at the end. Thus, the mid-year report often shows a child as underachieving because they’re only half-way through the learning set for the year. Of course they’re not at standard! They haven’t yet learned all the things they need to know to achieve standard, and more than that, they’re not supposed to have yet. But yay, let’s worry parents into believing their child isn’t doing as well as they are.

Another point was the sheer bluntness of the standard being measured. There are only four levels. Above, At, Below. or Well Below Standard. There are no layers of excellence, but there are dire levels of inadequacy. Worse, a teacher is expected to make an overall judgement on the level the student is achieving at – I have no idea how that works with a math whiz who can’t spell to save their life.

Finally, there is the issue that we crash into, about twice a year, every year. Right about reporting day. That’s the one where the standard changes. Every year the standard shifts a little higher, so a child that sits below standard can improve hugely, do really well when measured against themselves, but still be below standard at the end of the year.

How painfully demoralising! To get better and better and still be told that you’re not good enough! To continually improve, but to never measure up to the standard expected of people your age. There’s no shades of meaning or sense of achievement for being better than you’ve ever been before.

My younger daughter is borderline intellectually disabled. She will always struggle in school. Her teachers tell us every year that they hate writing her standardised report, because it just pigeonholes her as ‘Well Below Standard’. It says nothing about the gains she has made, nothing of how much they’ve seen her grow, and absolutely nothing about how very hard she’s worked.

It more than erases her efforts though. In using this ugly club of a ‘tool’, the task of actually assessing and expressing where she stands is pounded under the pile of horseshit known as ‘Well Below’. It’s taken me a long time to work out how far behind she is, because I’ve never thought to ask. I’ve been accepting ‘Well Below’ without questioning. Now, for my own sanity, I need to know – how far below? How well is she progressing? Is she falling further behind? Catching up? Just puttering along the same trajectory as everyone else, just with a lower start point? National Standards don’t tell me any of this.

National Standards are a signal failure. They do not tell the average parent much about how their child is doing, and they utterly fail the parent of a non-standard child. They add to teachers’ workloads, without providing meaningful information to parents. I do not remember what it was like pre-National Standards – but it had to be better than it is now.

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