Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Testing you to the top?

Over the weekend the Herald ran a story lamenting the number of new entrants who failed Ministry of Education expecations that they able to count to 20, knowing the alphabet, recognize colours and be able to write their own name before they started school.

I wasn’t able to write my name when I started school and actually couldn’t write my own name after a year at school (but that’s another post for another day). It wasn’t that my parents were indifferent to my education, far from it. My mother is a teacher, and it was through her experience of teaching the littlies where she saw kids who would probably benefit from a few extra months in pre-school rather than be pushed off to school simply because they turned five that she decided that she didn’t want to push me into activities before I was ‘ready.’ However if I showed interest in something, my parents where more than willing to help develop those interests whether it be listening to me read the same story for the umpteenth time or going out for ice blocks after I split my lip doing jumps on my bike with the much-older neighbour boy.

There seems to be a lot of credence given to the idea that a child hitting development milestones ‘early’ is automatically seen as a gifted thus parents seem to have gotten it into their heads that premature development is best. It isn’t unheard of for anxious parents to start intelligence-boosting activities long before said child has actually exited the womb. And if their kid isn’t hitting the mark parents minds often travel down all sorts of frightening pathways of learning disabilities, autism as some sort of explanation as to this deviation from “normal .” But the truth is that “normal” has very broad parameters and it can be very easy to stick a label on a kid even if it isn’t the right one.

Of course there’s a special breed of parents who seem to take joy in rubbing in the superior achievements of their children at the expense of others. However there is no indication that minor variations in the achievement of milestones have any relationship to later abilities or disabilities. Most people know kids develop at their own pace and that development might not always be linear. For instance a five year old might have the reading age of a much higher level but struggle to ride a bike. But what’s important for parents is that they know what’s ‘normal’ and that their offspring are doing as well as or if not better than the average bear.

Undoubtedly in response to all this angst about kids being ‘at least’ normal is a requirement that primary and intermediate schools will have to measure the progress of all children against nationally set benchmarks from next year. While information is a good thing, one of the strengths of our current system is that teachers teach children according to their own abilities. In any given classroom or indeed any particular subject there’s going to be a range of ability levels amongst students. However these sort of testing regimes lead to teachers teaching according to the school year, rather than their students’ ability level. It's absolutely absurd to believe that all students are working at the same level simply because they were born within a year of each other but we are going to test just to make sure.

The big losers are undoubtedly going to be those on both ends of the bell curves. Gifted children are going to see their meager extra resources redirected towards ensuring as many kids meet the required skill levels. While kids at the bottom end will undoubtedly start being pushed out in order for schools to bolster their scores. But that's normal right?


Lucia Maria said...

I don't often agree with you, but on this one, I do. As my recent posts on this subject show as well.

I don't know of any other country in the world that sends children off to school on their 5th birthday. In NSW (Australia) it was normal to consider waiting to send a child to school the year they turned 6. Parents decided based on their child, whether to keep that child in pre-school or move them to school. And not on their birthday, at the beginning of the school year.

NZ's system is really weird.

Nikki said...

Fo' shiz yo.

I can't stand the way everyone makes you feel as though you need to send your kidlet to school the very moment they turn 5.

And schools fricking reinforce it!! May I just quote from the enrolment pack for Han's school:

"It would be helpful for your child to know these knowledge and skills [Does that even make sense?!?!] prior to starting school.
- Recognise own name
- Manage own clothes, shoes, hanky, coat and tie shoe laces
- Manage own lunchbox - playtime - lunchtime
- Manage toilet unassisted
- Be able to sit down for a short time and listen
- Be able to take direction and answer a question
- Be able to paste a picture on paper
- Be able to manage crayons, scissors, and pencil
- Recognise some letters of the alphabet
- Recognise colours, shapes and be able to count to 9
- Enjoy hearing stories, nursery rhymes and songs

If you get your child doing any writing, please use the attached handwriting sheet so that he/she learns the correct way to form the letters. Write in lower case letters unless a capital is needed for a name.

[And here's the part I like, following the demand of competencies in language/writing etc - and it is bolded]

We would like children to start school on the Monday after their birthday."

I mean, I guess they want kids' to begin school at the start of the week but it just strikes me that you could read it as "The child must start as soon as poss after their 5th birthday despite readiness for school, yet they must also live up to expectations above. It is totally contradictory.

Nikki said...

Arghhhhhhhhhh I have an errant apostrophe. And a severe lack of closing quotation marks. Kill me nowwwwwwwww.

The ex-expat said...

In terms of school-readiness, the suit and I spent a large part of the summer before the child started school making sure that she could go to the toilet, get dressed and undressed (as they have swimming at class) and eat lunch by herself.

I wasn't so fussed about academic stuff figuring that you go to school learn stuff but did want to save her the embarrassment of walking down the hallway half-naked because she didn't know how to get dressed independently.

Charlotte-Rose said...

I currently teach 5 year olds and absolutely agree with what you are saying. I have a wide range of abilities in my class and it's difficult to deal with parental expectations at the best of times.

It's completely UNREALISTIC and UNFAIR for children of 5 years to be assessed against these standards, especially as many boys would be deemed to be "failing" because of their slower rate of natural development.

I can understand that parents want to better informed of their child's progress at school, but they should not be compared to others until they are at least 6 or 7 years old (when the gender gap has closed).

SimonD said...

I agree with the last part of your post. Trust the teachers to do what they are best at. It has worked for years why mess with it. Testing at this level will achieve little in my opinion.

MollyByGolly said...

A child's ability to write their own name at age 5 has a lot to do with their name.

A boy called "Eli" has a much better chance of achieveing this milestone than one named "Sasha" or "Benjamin" or "Tiberius".

Hugh said...

Personally I didn't learn how to fully spell my name reliably until I was about age 10.

hendo said...


Uh age of starting school actually varies all over Australia.

- my mum says that she was sent to school after her 5th birthday - in late October - in the early 60s in NSW and blames this for the fact that she had a difficult start to reading
- when my brother and I all started school in NSW in the mid 80s there were lots of kids sent to school at the beginning of the school year, in the year they turned 5
- there is more of a trend now to keep kids from school until the year they turn 6
- in Queensland kids have one year less at school, often start when they are 4 and complete last year of highschool at age 16
- and, random: I learnt to read quickly, read well above my age level and was good at spelling... but didn't learn to spell my own last name reliably until I was 8 (I believe because it's long, Italian and doesn't follow English spelling rules).

Personally I don't like the trend to keep kids back until they have turned 6; it creates a wider gap when you have some in a class who are two years older / younger. My primary school wanted to hold my brother back on the basis that he was smaller than most others and younger than some. My parents were really pissed off (because they they were told it was nothing to do with his abilities).

I think it works better if you have (like we had in our small school) groups of all different ages learning together; that way you can have age groups and learning groups.

Also I want to know what everyone is DOING with their kids until age 6 at home! My parents and all my aunts and uncles claim they sent us to school at / before age 5 because we were all bored...

Anonymous said...

It would be nice if parents knew what schools were able to do the job to help kids get to these levels.

Children pick up so much information up to the age of 7 that parents should be obligated to fill their heads up with this useful stuff before they go to school.