Schools to pay for test

Urgent software upgrade needed but ministry doesn’t want to pay. .

Schools have been warned they are likely to have to fork out for software to test students’ achievement after the Education Ministry balked at paying for an “urgent” $8 million software upgrade.

Documents obtained by the Labour Party under the Official Information Act show the ministry plans to privatise its student assessment tool, e-asttle, despite concerns about bad publicity.

The software was used by 1429 schools last year to conduct more than 1.4 million numeracy, literacy and writing tests for children in years 1 to 10.

The ministry said there was an urgent need to return the software to a “fit for purpose state” and the sale would mean that could be done without additional ministry funding.

Tender documents show the buyer will be allowed to charge schools for the software and sell it overseas in return for investing an estimated $8m getting the software back up to scratch.

The arrangement has not pleased Labour education spokesman Chris Hipkins, who said the sale of the software to a commercial provider would be inefficient.

“Over a long period of time taxpayers have invested a lot in e-asttle so I’d be concerned that it is being privatised,” he said.

“At the moment it is available more or less free and if schools are going to have to pay to access it then that is yet another cost pressure on schools.”

An Education Ministry memo suggested the sale of e-asttle could become a test case for further sales of government-owned intellectual property to the private sector.

The 2014 memo written by Education Ministry deputy secretary Lisa Rodgers said there was “current cross-government interest in commercialising government intellectual property”.

A 30-page “communication plan” produced by the ministry acknowledged there was a high risk schools might object to the sale of e-asttle and future charges, and a high risk of “adverse publicity” and “a political backlash” over its sale.

The document said its key messages would be that e-asttle needed substantial investment and the ministry would remain a part-owner and would work with the buyer to keep charges to a minimum.

Rodgers insisted the opportunity to take e-asttle to “a new level” by allowing a private partner to commercialise the software overseas was a major factor behind the decision to sell.

New Zealand Principals Federation president Denise Torrey said the sale of e-asttle might be pragmatic from the ministry’s point of view, but the federation believed the testing tool could “lose its integrity” if the new buyer cut corners.

Torrey said the ministry had taken responsibility for the maintenance of the tool from its developer, Auckland Uniservices, as the ministry decided it could manage it more cheaply.

But that had led to “shonky” school tests in 2009 and 2010 when the ministry failed to properly calibrate test questions, she said. The ministry had responded to that situation but she was concerned about how responsive any overseas buyer might be to schools’ needs.

The federation wanted the ministry to invest more in assessment, she said.

“We know the Education Ministry doesn’t have this expertise and needs the sector to do it with them.”

The upgrade of e-asttle will involve “refreshing” its 10,000 questions and modernising its underlying technology.

Ministry documents said there was some risk Auckland Uniservices might claim it still owned the intellectual property.

The ministry, however, said previous legal advice had confirmed the ministry’s ownership.

Auckland Uniservices is the commercial arm of Auckland University.

Hipkins said taxpayers would end up paying for e-asttle one way or another, but the most efficient way was for the Government to continue to own it and offer it to schools free-of-charge.

“Taxpayers have invested a lot in e-asttle so I’d be concerned that it is being privatised.”

– Sunday Star Times


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