A Climate of Standards in NZ Education


Over the past 20 years, changes in New Zealand’s education environment have led to a ‘climate of standards’. Some people argue that standards can help to motivate students by fostering a ‘mastery’ orientation to learning, while others argue that standards  are demotivating because they encourage  a ‘credit accumulation’ mentality, and a narrowing of the curriculum.

What are ‘standards’ and what role do they play in New Zealand schools?

Standards are criterion-referenced descriptions of learning designed to measure a student’s ability to demonstrate a particular set of skills. The New Zealand Ministry of Education describes their National Standards in literacy and mathematics as “broad statements of valued outcomes supported by ways to measure those outcomes” (2010b). They are said to be “set at a level of difficulty that can reasonably be achieved by students given quality instruction” (Ministry of Education, 2010b). Standards-based assessment frameworks are often contrasted with norm-referenced assessments, which are designed to compare individual students’ levels of achievement against other students of a similar age or level of education (Ministry of Education, 2010b).

Over the past 20 years New Zealand governments have adopted an outcomes approach to curriculum design and introduced standards-based forms of assessment. In 1993, the New Zealand Curriculum Framework (NZCF) (Ministry of Education, 1993) was introduced. The NZCF broke key learning areas into a series of behavioral achievement objectives, which were organized into eight progressive levels (A.-M. O’Neill & O’Neill, 2008). The new New Zealand Curriculum (Ministry of Education, 2007), which came into effect in 2010, retained this outcomes-driven approach; however, the number of achievement objectives were reduced and five new “Key Competencies” (Ministry of Education, 2007) were included: thinking; using language, symbols, and texts; managing self; relating to others; participating and contributing (Ministry of Education, 2007).

In 2002, the government introduced a standards-based secondary school qualification called The National Certificate in Educational Achievement (NCEA). The NCEA breaks subjects into discrete Achievement Standards and Unit Standards, which students are assessed against at three progressive levels (Crooks, 2011). Then, in 2008, the National Government introduced National Standards for literacy and mathematics at primary schools. Primary schools were required to report students’ progress against a range of benchmarks that defined what they should be able to do by a particular year at school (Crooks, 2011).

How might standards support students’ motivation to learn?

Advocates argue that standards support the design of meaningful instruction. With standards, teachers have more freedom to be creative, to “determine programs and topics of assessment” (Fitzpatrick & Locke, 2008), and to design instruction that is “connected to the worlds of students” (Fitzpatrick & Locke, 2008). Since the NCEA was implemented, many schools in New Zealand have offered more subjects, including a large number of “less traditional courses”  (Shulurf, Hattie, & Tumen, 2010). This allows students to exercise greater autonomy by designing and negotiating their individual learning pathways.

Because learning criteria are discrete and explicit, they can generate feedback focused on the strengths and weaknesses of specific students (Rawlins, 2008). This facilitates the design of personalized instruction. The New Zealand Ministry of Education (2010a) maintains that standards-based assessment does not increase teachers’ reliance on impersonal forms of summative testing – even though this has occurred in other countries. It argues that teachers can use “overall professional judgments”, based on a range of information gathered from multiple sources, to assess students’ achievements against specific learning outcomes. They say the information can be used diagnostically to identify students’ current strengths and weaknesses and to design instruction that is “responsive to each student and their unique learning contexts” (Ministry of Education, 2010a).

Because standards make learning outcomes explicit and break them into discrete units, students are encouraged to adopt learning goals rather than performance goals. Students can focus on their progress towards specific outcomes without worrying about what other students are doing. Goal theorists advise against practices – such as norm-referenced examinations – that prompt students to compare themselves with other students, rather than attending to “one’s own trajectory of progress” (Brophy, 2010, p. 85). Students who hold learning goals focus on developing understanding and skills, and they believe that increased effort will boost achievement (Fitzpatrick & Locke, 2008; Seifert, 2004). On the other hand, students who hold performance goals are more likely to be ego-oriented and focused on how they compare to others (Fitzpatrick & Locke, 2008; Seifert, 2004). When performance-oriented students experience failure they are more likely to develop a motivational state known as learned helplessness (Brophy, 2010).

Standards are also said to have a positive impact on students’ self-efficacy. Self efficacy is defined as a persons’ belief in his or her ability to successfully “organize and execute courses of action to attain designated goals” (Zimmerman, 2000). In a standards framework students gain recognition for achievements in “something rather than nothing” (St.George & Riley, 2008). Teachers can draw on standards that are appropriately challenging for specific students, and design instruction that will help more students experience success. According to Zimmerman (2000),  “Enactive [real life] experiences are the most influential source of efficacy belief because they are predicated on the outcomes of personal experiences”. Self-efficacy beliefs have been shown to influence students’ “choice of activities, level of effort, persistence, and emotional reactions” (Zimmerman, 2000).

How do standards undermine students’ motivation to learn?

Standards encourage students to develop a credit accumulation mentality (Fitzpatrick & Locke, 2008). In order to achieve a standard, some students exert only enough effort to meet the minimum criteria and then move on to the next standard, rather than strive for excellence or mastery (Fitzpatrick & Locke, 2008; Meyer, Weir, McClure, Walkey, & McKenzie, 2009).  In New Zealand, Meyer and colleagues found that students’ self-ratings in relation to “doing my best” and “doing just enough” to gain NCEA credits correlate strongly with overall achievement: “students with high ratings on doing just enough achieved lower grades, fewer achievement standard credits, and more unit standard credits” (Meyer et al., 2009). They also found that students from low-decile schools were more likely to report wanting to do just enough (Meyer et al., 2009). A standards-based assessment system often fosters a minimalist approach in students with low self-efficacy.

Moreover, although an increase in choice and flexibility can be motivating for some students, for others it provides a chance to ‘opt out’, or avoid standards they perceive to be difficult or hard work (Hipkins, 2010). When given too much choice, especially in high-stakes situations, novice learners are more likely to experience choice-overlaod than increased motivation.

Standards also lead to a culture of testing that has a negative impact on the motivation of low achieving students. Increased accountability measures are associated with standards-based reform, and these pressures lead to an emphasis on high-stakes, standardized testing. According to Crooks (2011), the introduction of National standards in New Zealand primary schools raised the stakes associated with assessment, because teachers were required to regularly report on students’ progress against the standards to parents and other stakeholders. In order to justify their judgments, teachers rely increasingly on standardized tests. At the secondary school level, New Zealand teachers face similar pressures. A 2009 survey of New Zealand secondary schools revealed that a third of the teachers felt “under unfair pressure to boost NCEA results” (Hipkins, 2010). Based on findings from this survey, Hipkins concluded:

The impetus to use NCEA results to make changes in teaching and learning that will lift student achievement has intensified. It is a pressure that plays out against a backdrop of increases in league table reporting of NCEA results. This means the equity issues related to the provision of appropriate learning opportunities become messily tangled with marketing issues related to the wider public perceptions of the school, with all the media controversy that such reporting engenders (Hipkins, 2010).

As indicated earlier, this increased focus on high-stakes assessment has a negative impact on students’ motivation (Gipps, 2003; Harlen & Crick, 2003; St.George & Riley, 2008, p. 151). A meta-analysis of research on summative assessment (Harlen & Crick, 2003) revealed that when there is an over-emphasis on testing, and when the stakes are high for schools and teachers, low achieving students are more likely to attribute their failures to stable, and uncontrollable, personal characteristics. In addition, in these environments students become aware of repeated testing. “Low achievers become overwhelmed by assessments and de-motivated by constant evidence of their low achievement… Being labeled as failures has an impact, not just on current feelings about their ability to learn, but lowers further their already low self-esteem thus reducing the chance of future effort and success” (Harlen & Crick, 2003).

A heavy assessment culture also leads to a narrowing of the curriculum. In a climate of accountability, where teachers feel pressured to raise students’ achievement against national standards, they will be predisposed to ‘teaching to the test’ (Hawke & Simpson, 2011) rather than developing broad, knowledge-rich, instructional designs. In New Zealand the introduction of standards coincided with the formation of a range “of detailed accountability, assessment and regulatory requirements” (A.-M. O’Neill & O’Neill, 2008, p. 10). Due to increased work loads and mounting pressure to ensure that students meet standards, teachers turn to readily available assessment tools, guidelines, and exemplars which “lock them into a form of indentured practice in which their function is to contribute directly to enable the government to meet its larger education priorities” (J. O’Neill, 2005, p. 123).

Case studies in New Zealand secondary schools (Hume & Colb, 2009) confirm that under the standards-based NCEA system, high-stakes testing and qualifications drove classroom practice. Hume and Colb observed that, “Many decisions to do with classroom practice were effectively taken out of the individual teachers’ hands – instead judgments were made collectively at departmental level for accountability reasons” (2009). They noted that, in these classrooms, “the student-experienced curriculum appeared to be focused on a narrow view of scientific inquiry” (2009). Aitken and Sinnema point out that a narrow curriculum will alienate some students: “Activities that are interesting build and sustain motivation for learning. Learners are not however motivated in the same way, and their interests do not necessarily coincide with those of the teacher. For this reason, stimulating interest involves deliberate design that is sensitive to different learner motivations and responses” (2008).

How do these arguments compare?

Arguments in favor of standards treat students as autonomous, context-independent, agents. They maintain that standards are not to blame for an over-emphasis on testing or narrow curriculum design. Standards focus on learning outcomes that are potentially achievable by the majority of students. In a standards framework, learning, not competition, is the driving force, and there is no requirement to name winners and losers. Consequently, standards support students’ motivation by protecting their self-efficacy and by fostering an orientation towards mastery goals, and a malleable view of intelligence.

However, these arguments imply that standards protect students from a darker alternative – one that would otherwise impinge upon the provision of a rich, personalized, education. Of course, such forces do exist, and they are the result of an underlying capitalist ideology. Schools are required to name winners and losers. In capitalist societies schools service “a hierarchical labour market” (A.-M. O’Neill & O’Neill, 2008) by reproducing an unequal social structure that “underlies and benefits capitalism” (A.-M. O’Neill & O’Neill, 2008).  This produces contextual pressures that influence the meanings students, and other stake-holders, attach to standards.

In a capitalist regime standards do not achieve what they are supposed to; rather, they establish benchmarks against which to measure the performance of students and teachers. They are standardized – one-size-fits-all – behavioral outcomes that are valued by employment markets.

Arguments against standards acknowledge this context. Where there is competition and accountability, discrete standards are embedded, daily, into every aspect of school life. Learning is broken into smaller and smaller behavioural components – each individually tested, so that students, teachers, and schools are held tightly accountable. This encourages students to think of learning as the accumulation of isolated skills. These skills are later traded for further education or employment opportunities. Students with the right kind of social and cultural capital prosper, while others are alienated and ‘choose’ to opt out. The effects on motivation are serious and long lasting.


Standards are often seen as a way to increase achievement for all students. Because standards are descriptions of learning that can be achieved by any student given quality instruction, they are said to be equitable and motivating. Teachers are able to utilize the flexible nature of  standards to provide ever more interesting, relevant,  and meaningful choices for students and to design ‘personalized’ instruction. Although choice, a focus on learning goals, and personalization can, to a degree, increase student motivation, these tools lose their effectiveness when they are tied to pre-determined, one-size-fits-all, behavioural outcomes designed to equip learners with skills for work. Standards are used to select and segregate students on the basis of performance. In a capitalist society they contribute to an atmosphere of high-stakes testing and competition, which leads to impoverished, standardized, and demotivating approaches to instruction.


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