Education Minister Erica Stanford addresses concerns over phonics testing

Mandatory testing of primary school students for phonics will only provide a snapshot of where their learning is at, says an education expert.

From years 3-8, schools would have to test children’s reading, writing and maths twice a year using either e-asTTle or Progressive Assessment Tests (PATs).

From 2025, phonics tests with children will begin at 20 weeks and 40 weeks of schooling.

These tests would support the government’s decision to mandate the use of structured literacy approaches to teaching reading.

Canterbury University education senior lecturer Jae Major told Checkpoint the phonics tests was only one part of the reading assessments required and could also create stress and anxiety.

“[Phonics assessment is] only a narrow part of the whole reading process, and so it needs to be taken along with assessment of comprehension, reading comprehension, and vocabulary development and a raft of other things that are just as important as phonics in the development of reading with young children,” Dr Major said.

“So I’m a bit concerned that this preoccupation with phonics and phonics testing is going to put a lot of attention on one element of what is required for young children to learn to read, and it isolates that one element and seems to ignore the others.

“I’m concerned at the intention for testing twice a year. I think that creates an administrative burden for teachers.

“Any kind of high stakes testing creates anxiety for both teachers and children and, you know, we’re in a time when there’s already high levels of anxiety recognised amongst children in schooling, and I’m concerned that we are potentially going to be adding to this.”

But she was pleased the minister had ruled out test data being compared and contrasted in national tables, which Dr Major said had created huge stress for children when done overseas.

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  • She questioned what support schools would receive to help struggling readers, in particular because the Reading Recovery programme had been scrapped.

    “It would be good to get some assurances about what is going to replace that and how teachers are going to be supported and how children are going to be supported, when and as they are identified as needing additional help.”

    National MP Erica Stanford

    Education Minister Erica Stanford agreed with Dr Major that the phonics test was only a “targeted checkpoint”.

    “It’s only one very small part, but making sure that kids are on track with their reading very early on is crucial.

    “It’s measuring progress to make sure that kids, by the time they finish intermediate, are where they need to be to experience success at high school.”

    On the Reading Recovery programme, she said she had chosen not to renew it after the contract ended because it was not based on structured literacy.

    “I’m replacing Reading Recovery with tier two and three, which is small group and one-on-one interventions. So the purpose of that assessment is for teachers to find those children who are falling behind and not mapping sounds to words and put that intervention into place.”

    She expected data from phonics test checks would be aggregated back to the ministry from 2026.

    “We have very little data as to how we’re tracking and if we want to meet the needs of students who need that additional learning support, we have to have good data.

    “So that’s why I’ve sort of said, look, let’s pick two tools that we know work really well …and this phonics check to give us some really good data about where we need to put more resource, because right now we’re very blind.”

    Principal Traci Liddall.

    However, Waihola District School acting principal Traci Liddall said the plan sounded similar to the old national standards approach.

    She believed it would be damaging for children who consistently performed below the norm for their age group.

    Families should be told where their child stood but the focus should be on their progress from year to year, she said.

    Stanford said this was a different way to monitoring student progress than the national standards.

    “It’s monitoring progress for a start rather than a point in time … and teachers have fed back to me very clearly we do not want to measure a point in time, we want to measure progress over time and are children making progress? And if they’ve fallen behind, have they been accelerated in their learning? And if they’re ahead, are they being extended?”

    She said she had consulted with experts including people in the opposition, one of whom was now working for the ministry.

    “She’s one of the world-leading experts in assessment who’s been working on this. She is outstanding. I should thank her. She’s done the bulk of the work on this. But that team of researchers and academics have been integral in helping us put this together.

    “But also more importantly, it was important to talk to the sector, to principals and teachers … So that’s what informed our decision to use these tools that many schools are already using.”

    According to the news on Radio New Zealand

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