Central and Eastern Europe, Education, International Journalism and PR

”Ditch and replace these tests with more appropriate ones but do not punish the student!”

Exclusive interview with Professor John Hattie, part 2.


Professor John Hattie, image youtube, Tedtalks

Professor John Hattie is a researcher in education. His research interests include performance indicators, models of measurement and evaluation of teaching and learning. John Hattie became known to a wider public with his two books Visible Learning and Visible Learning for Teachers. Visible Learning is a synthesis of more than 800 meta-studies covering more than 80 million students.  

Since the publication of his books, John Hattie has continued to collect and aggregate meta-analyses to the Visible Learning database. His latest dataset synthesizes 1,500 meta-analyses of 90,000 studies involving more than 300 million students. This is the world’s largest evidence base into what works best in schools to improve learning.

Times Educational Supplement: TES once called him “possibly the world’s most influential education academic”.

John Hattie is Laureate Professor at the University of Melbourne, Australia, since March 2011. Before, he was Project Director of asTTle and Professor of Education at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. He holds a PhD from the University of Toronto, Canada.

He was made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit  in the 2011 Queen’s Birthday Honours, for services to education.

In this two part interview with Professor John Hattie we will discuss retention, evaluate reasons why children are retained, we will look into consequences of retention, prevention of retention, assessment in the Netherlands, objectivity of assessment, quality of teaching methods and the role of teachers in the retention process.

Background information: The Netherlands is the European leader in retention. On average in European countries 7, 3% of children repeat the class. In the Netherlands, it is 22.4%. Retention is extremely costly for the state budget of the Netherlands and equals 500 million euros per year, or 3% of total government spending on the primary and secondary education.  Additionally government misses out more incomes related to the fact that children/students who get retained will work less long and therefore pay less premiums and taxes. The estimated cost of this is 900 million per year. So, the total costs of retention is 1,4 billion euros per year. This is equivalent to more than 80 euros per person.

Not only the national purse shows that retention is a bad idea. It is also backed up by international research. Retaining a student doubles the chance of later drop out, retaining twice almost guarantees drop out. Moreover, promoted students score better than retained students on social and emotional adjustment, and behavior, self-concept, and attitude towards school. Dutch Central office of the planning studies (Centraal Planbureau) is calling schools for alternatives.

Children from a family with a different linguistic and cultural background have a chance 4 times bigger to repeat the class. In the Netherlands these children also belong to the group which more often has to repeat the year at school. According to the latest report issued by a special Dutch government organization controlling the quality of education: Inspectie van het Onderwijs these are the nominal numbers: 15,8% of children with no migration background repeat the class in the Netherlands as contrast to: 21,6% children with the western immigration background,  21% not western 2nd generation and  27% not western 1st generation. Children with a migration background are also more often advised to continue their education at a lower level of a secondary school.  So the immigration background defines the future of the child. Read more about it here

Beata Bruggeman-Sekowska: In the Netherlands schools use methods that are designed for monolingual kids but not bilingual. The tests, and especially official CITO tests which also determine the future career of kids, what level of secondary school they may follow,  are normalized for monolingual children. They can be perfectly good tests, but they will never reflect the full knowledge of the language of bilingual children because they do not reflect the cultural and linguistic background of these children. [i]If such kids ‘’underperform’’, get insecure about themselves since their results do not much the results of monolingual kids and they are told at schools that they perform worse is than retention a good option for them? Would retention make them better students? Or is there a better solution? And why?

Prof. John Hattie: One of the standards that all test developers adhere to (e.g., APA, NCME, ITC standards) relates to ensuring that any test is not biased in a way that leads to adverse impact (yes technical language) – but it means that the student should not be disadvantaged by tests not that measure culture, language when they are supposed to measure reading or numeracy.  This is poor testing, this is inappropriate interpretation, this should not happen, this is against the standards of the test community.

Retention will not solve these problems.  Fix the tests to ensure no adverse impact; ditch and replace these tests with more appropriate ones but do not punish the student!

Learning how to read  is not narrowly connected with the kids abilities and how intelligent kids are. Most problems related to reading are the result of the quality of the method and the instruction quality of teachers. [ii] [iii]So if you offer the kid the wrong method and the kid does not score according to expectations is this his/her fault and should he/she be retained?

Yes, there are many excellent programs to teach students to read (and some very poor ones). Learning to read requires teaching skills of phonemic awareness, rhyme, and so much more and skilled teachers who know these many details are needed. If a child does not learn to read, we should start by questioning our teaching methods – we cannot and should not choose the students we want, and who learn via our methods – we are the only people in the room paid to adapt our methods to ensure the students are the beneficiaries of our skills and talents.

Teachers tend to compare children and assess them based on comparison. What is the key to do it professionally, concentrate on underperformance or growth?

Students, in general, know their ranking in classes and a key is to switch the narrative in the class to growth – every child, no matter where they start, deserves at least a year’s growth for a year’s input.  Providing students with their evidence of growth is critical.  Many classes that have developed high trust between students share this evidence and can cooperatively then work together to advance the growth of all students (e.g., using growth walls). 

At Dutch schools children are assessed also on the basis of their attitudes and work attitude. Can it also lead to retention?

Can bad behavior lead to retention? I imagine it does but do not see why holding a child back will make any difference whatsoever to the behavior – only programs to improve behavior does. And if a child is held back for poor behavior you need to question the skills of the teacher to establish classroom management, fairness, and appropriate behavior.

In the Netherlands teachers of primary schools advise children at the age of 12 what and and what level secondary school they have to follow. What do you think of this early selection?  

You are the only country in the world that claims that you can estimate at the age of twelve what a child can and want to achieve when he/she is 12. After turning 12 children still grow. Look at myself. I was initially advised to do painting and paper hanging. I am so grateful that I could reverse it and continue learning. In your system I would have been papering walls  or become a murderer out of sheer frustration, and I wasn’t even good at painting and wallpapering.

You waste so much talent. I expect that some of your best entrepreneurs and designers don’t exist because they got wrongly classified in your system at too early an age. That’s dramatic.



  • [ii] Bergsma, J., Houtveen T., & Smits, A. (2010). Passend leesonderwijs mogelijk maken. Tijdschrift voor Orthopedagogiek, 49, 407-423.
  • [iii] Pameijer, N., Beukering, T. van & Lange, S. de (2009). Handelingsgericht werken: een handreiking voor het schoolteam. Leuven: Acco.

Photo: Pixabay, geralt/19794
https://pixabay.com/zh/users/geralt-9301/

Read also:

‘’No single intervention by schools is worse than retention’’

Migration background determines child’s career at schools in the Netherlands

‘’Schools should provide additional support to bilingual children’’

‘’Teachers: have and show more empathy to bilingual children’’

‘’Find a school that not only listens but also really hears you’’

‘’Bilingual children have two language systems and this makes them different from monolingual children. Not better, not worse, just different’’