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Steve Thomas

The latest NCEA overhaul does not go far enough

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If the NCEA was a car would you drive your kids anywhere in it? Based on its performance over the past five years, probably not, since you could not be confident your kids would reach their destination intact—that is, having a qualification that is meaningful and precise. Among the frustrations with the NCEA are extreme variability in pass rates in both external and internal achievement standards, ranging from anywhere between 10 to 30 percent, and simplistic reporting of results to pupils and parents using either “achieved” or “not achieved,” which has had the effect of lumping every pupil into one of two very broad groups.

This has simply not been good enough for a growing number of principals at schools like Avondale College, St Cuthbert’s College and Kelston Boys’ High, who are choosing to give their pupils the option of an exam system they have confidence in by signing up for the Cambridge International Examinations.

And so the Education Minister, Steve Maharey, has had to come up with solutions to stem the exodus from the NCEA and begin to restore confidence in the beleaguered national qualification.

This week the Minister took a dramatic u-turn, unveiling a number of significant changes to the NCEA. The main changes include: introducing excellence and merit grades to NCEA certificates; introducing excellence and merit grades for achievement standards that relate to particular subject areas; including not achieved grades in NCEA pupil results notices for internally assessed as well as externally assessed achievement standards; and a rise in the amount of external moderation of internally assessed achievement standards from three to 10 percent. A team of dedicated NZQA-employed moderators will be responsible for the moderation.

These changes are the kind of remedies long desired by schools and educationalists, and they are a positive step towards improving the reporting of information about achievement. But the changes do not resolve a number of other outstanding problems with the NCEA.

Research in 2006 from the University of Victoria and the Ministry of Education reported that the highest percentage of concerned comments made by pupils, 59 percent, related to five assessment issues. One of these was pupil demotivation caused by merit and excellence grades not being distinguished from achieved grades in final NCEA results.

While it is hoped that reporting the higher grades of merit and excellence will help to motivate pupils to strive for higher achievement, in reality the change does nothing to prevent the practice of “credit collecting,” also highlighted as a problem in the research. Credit collecting is where savvy pupils work the system by pursuing only the minimum 80 credits needed to pass an NCEA level and choose easier achievement standards or subjects. It means they can slack off or miss out parts of a course once they have their 80 credits, meaning that only the exceptionally self-motivated pupils do their best to get a full education.

Another change which misses the mark relates to the way achievement standards are set and examined. NZQA and the Ministry of Education set the achievement standards, which puts teachers and examiners under too much pressure to decide what is fair, to the disadvantage of pupils, parents and employers. Unfortunately even with the new changes this is set to continue.

In the past, the achievement standards have been criticised for being too vague by experienced educators such as Warwick Elley. This is simply because it becomes very difficult to break complex subjects down into discrete testable skills as the NCEA attempts to. Tasks like formal writing and mathematical calculations involve a range of higher order thinking skills that can only be accurately tested in a traditional-style external exam.

Another difficulty with the NCEA is the way in which standards are set and graded.

A lot of these problems could be overcome if more rigour and objectivity were introduced into the NCEA. Achievement levels within standards could be made more precise if methods such as pre-testing of questions and “bookmarking” (where specimens of pupils’ assessment are examined to define the boundaries around each grade) were used. Further, internal assessment could be made more reliable, and pressure released from teachers, by using the results of the externally assessed achievement standards to moderate the internally assessed ones.

Introducing practices like these would vastly improve the measurement of NCEA grades and would base NCEA standards on the evidence of what pupils can actually do, not what NZQA thinks they can do, and would give pupils concrete targets to aim for.

This is not to say Mr Maharey’s changes are bad; they are necessary and welcome. However, more work is needed before the NCEA can become the rigorous qualification pupils and parents deserve. Nonetheless, these changes should restore a measure of confidence in the NCEA among pupils and schools sitting the qualification. It is only a shame that they have not come sooner. More significantly, the introduction of a failure grade and an element of competition for pupils through more precise reporting of NCEA grades is an admission from the educrats that, despite their previous claims, the ideology of standards-based assessment can no longer be defended as a basis for an excellent “world-class” qualification.