girl asleep on top of a pile of books, test paper background
Image: Archi Banal

OPINIONSocietyJuly 3, 2023

Standardised testing in NZ? Give me a break

girl asleep on top of a pile of books, test paper background
Image: Archi Banal

For many school students overseas, break times have all but vanished in the pursuit of increased achievement outcomes. Educational specialist Sarah Aiono asks if New Zealand really wants to follow that path.

How well would you cope with one 20-minute break a day in an environment of continuous new learning and rigorous, ongoing, standards-based assessment?

According to the Global Recess Alliance, some educators are fighting for a bare minimum of 20 minutes per day for their students to have a break from formal learning. Panellists from the alliance told this month’s International Play Association conference in Glasgow that for many students in places like the US, break times have all but vanished in the pursuit of increased achievement outcomes.

As nations around the globe strive to enhance their education systems, the merits of standardised testing have come under scrutiny. National’s education plan, which includes proposed standardised tests for students in Years 3-8, has added fuel to this debate. The controversies surrounding primary school SATs in the UK and standardised testing in the US show the potential pitfalls of such an approach.

In the UK, the Standard Assessment Tests (SATs) were responsible for a test paper for 10 and 11-year-olds that has caused uproar in the education sector. The test, adapted from a New York Times article, was not only criticised for its daunting difficulty level but also for its content which was “utterly miserable, scary and quite middle class”, according to one principal.

In the United States, it’s not just the content and difficulty level of standardised tests that have been questioned, but also the time allocated for preparing students to sit such tests. In many states, 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 means no break times at all throughout the school day for children to have a gap between lessons. In some places, teachers are reprimanded for scheduling recess in their planning formats, and many states restrict recess to no more than 30 minutes, in total, for the entire school day.

an overhead view of children running around on the concrete of a school playground
Photo: Getty Images

Recess, playtime, interval – whatever you choose to call it, it’s an essential part of the school day, providing children with much-needed breaks in which 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.

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 life. Overly long school days can 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.

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. The alliance 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 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 expendable time that can be used for additional academic instruction, but an essential component of a balanced education.

The Global Recess Alliance offers a valuable counterpoint to the push for more standardised testing and a longer school day, emphasising that holistic development and a child’s health and wellbeing is paramount in any education system.

Introducing standardised testing to New Zealand could mean heading down a similar trajectory to that of the US, with serious potential repercussions for children’s mental health and overall development. We’ve already had plenty of examples demonstrating the risks to wellbeing of an overly rigorous testing regime. In 2016, Year 11 students were left in tears when asked to complete a complex algebraic problem; in 2019 there was criticism of a geometrically impossible NCEA Level 2 examination question; and recently the trial NCEA literacy and numeracy tests have been identified as too hard for many students.

The standardised testing approach may also be incompatible with the cultural diversity that characterises New Zealand’s classrooms. The NCEA literacy and numeracy test trials, in particular, raised concerns about their lack of cultural relevance, leading to demoralising experiences for students in the Cook Islands and Niue. The SATs controversy in the United Kingdom underlines 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 our cultural diversity could unintentionally marginalise the experiences, knowledge, and perspectives of the cultures of the diverse people who call Aotearoa home. 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.

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 a too-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.

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