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Subscribe to this list via RSS Blog posts tagged in NCEA

Posted by on in Education

President Angela Roberts submitted the following letter to The Listener, in response to its editorial of 15 October.  The Listener, in its usual biased fashion, slashed it to pieces, taking out all the arguments in favour of NCEA being a multi-field qualification, providing choice for students and valid assessment in subjects that don’t lend themselves to written exams, etc.  They removed all the words from “PPTA has argued since the 85% Level 2 goal was set…” right through to “instead of standards that stretch them”. 

At the same time, they published a letter from Professor Warwick Elley which argued that New Zealand should go the English way and cut back internal assessment dramatically, get rid of modular assessment, and abolish re-submission.   Elley also supported the Listener’s recommendation to reduce internal to no more than half the credits as “a good start”.   They also awarded it “Letter of the Week” – I hope he enjoys his copy of Nadia Lim’s Fresh Start Cookbook! 

Elley’s letter was at least as many words as Angela originally submitted, if not more!  That’s really partial editing of letters that are over the recommended length.   Don’t tell me that Listener Editor Pamela Stirling isn’t biased! 

The original letter

Dear Editor

Your editorial in the 15 October edition was mostly right on the nail, but it’s a pity you drew the wrong conclusion. 

Panning the government’s “bullish pressure on pass rates” was absolutely right.  PPTA has argued since the 85% Level 2 goal was set that a target like this is dangerous in the context of a standards-based qualifications system that contains significant amounts of internal assessment.

Your claim that there has been a “gradual makeover of NCEA into an extraordinarily permissive regime”, however, is nonsense.  NCEA has always been a “multi-field qualification”.  This means that students can enter standards from right across the Qualifications Framework to gain a certificate at a particular level. 

In the absence of a percentage target, this works fine.  Students, in consultation with their families and teachers, assemble assessment programmes that match their aspirations and abilities.  A student who is aiming for a career in the primary industries can assemble a programme made up of relevant curriculum subjects such as English, Maths and Science and also more applied study such as unit standards related to farming skills.  A student aiming for a career as a civil engineer, on the other hand, will do a programme focusing largely on Maths and Sciences. 

This kind of choice is what people from the pre-NCEA generations wish they had had, instead of the heavy academic focus and built-in 50% failure rates that left many people with no recognition at all for what they could do. 

However, pressure on schools to ensure that all of their students achieve NCEA Level 2 incentivises school leaders the wrong way.  It encourages them to demand that teachers find standards that students can be guaranteed to achieve, instead of standards that stretch them.  

The answer is not to cap the number of credits that come from internal assessment.  Our robust moderation system which produces teacher/moderator agreement rates at a level envied by the rest of the world means that internal assessment is just as reliable as external assessment.  Exams are often not a valid way of assessing the much wider range of learning that can be recognised through NCEA, and which a modern school system should be promoting.   How much of subjects like Horticulture or Drama, for example, can be validly assessed through written exams?  Very little. 

The solution is instead to stop measuring the system’s success through a percentage target.  We should focus instead on how well students do when they leave our schools.  That’s the true test of a successful school system.


Angela Roberts


PPTA President

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Recently we released a paper calling for the Minister to scrap the 85% NCEA target. The main reason, we argue, is the very real risk to the qualification – bluntly, it puts pressure on schools to ‘juke the stats’ which undermines NCEA's credibility.

The other day the Minister said that basically a school could do whatever it wanted with its curriculum as long as it was producing good NCEA results (see this interview – no need to teach Te Reo Maori, even in a predominantly Maori school if your grades are good).  Of course that’s the central premise of charter schools too. A senior official lately was singing the praises of schools for having a much sharper focus on ‘achievement’ than ever before. 

And by achievement, we’re not talking personalised portfolios or individual leaver profiles, this is quantifiable achievement, i.e. qualifications. Maybe there’s no problem with having a view of schools as ‘qualification factories’. But lately I’ve seen some reports and studies which cast doubt on the value of qualifications over all else at school.

One of them was the Ministry’s review of the various Youth Guarantee initiatives.  These programmes are aimed at students who are not doing very well at school and are at risk of disengaging, around 14% of young people access them. The report showed, when they tracked participants for a few years and compared them to a similar cohort, that while the programmes helped with gaining level 2 NCEA, “there is no evidence that they are providing a more effective pathway to further education and training than other educational choices for a similar group of young people”.

So, while it helps the minister’s target, it doesn’t seem to help the students much.  Is this a worthwhile initiative to put resources into?

But perhaps more important is  this fascinating report based on data from the Dunedin multidisciplinary study. It was reported on at the time and it’s not new, but in the light of schools’ supposed ‘sharper focus on achievement’ it’s worth revisiting.

What it shows is that in the long run, academic success at school is not as important for having a good life as what the authors call social connectedness.  The authors write “Adolescent social connectedness was a better predictor of adult well-being than academic achievement “.

We’ve got a few measures that relate to our students’ ‘social connectedness’,  and well-being, from some of the questions in the PISA survey that goes along with the tests, Youth 2000 and Wellbeing@School. But  are schools allowed to report these things alongside NCEA or National Standards? Does the minister have an ‘unrelenting focus’ on well-being? Not so much.


Of course , as usual, this comes back to some of the fundamental questions about the purpose of school. Secondary teachers know that qualifications matter – that’s why we want a valid, robust system that treats students fairly and is useful for people who need to know what someone leaving school can do. But there’s a balance to be struck here, and an ‘unrelenting focus on raising achievement’ may not be setting up students for the best possible lives.

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Posted by on in Uncategorized

The tension between assessment and learning is one that all teachers will be familiar with. A secondary school curriculum that's driven by NCEA is something that many schools grapple with - yes we know that student achievement as measured by our national qualification is essential and central to our work, but there are other worthwhile and valid goals for schooling too. And to what extent are we really making use of the flexibility that our curriculum and assessment system allows? Recent evidence would suggest not much - and that's encouraged by the powers that be.

One of the premises and key features of NCEA is that it's modular and allows a whole lot of flexibility in designing assessments that adapt to students' & school communities' interests and needs. At the Select Committee last week when NZQA was being questioned about their annual report, the Chief Exec, Karen Poutasi revealed something that was concerning in this regard. 

What she said was that over 90% of NCEA courses offer standards from single subject areas, and that this is a good thing because it shows they are 'coherent'. The implication here is that QA does not approve of courses that use NCEA standards from a range of subject areas.  This narrowing of the scope and flexibility of NCEA has also been heavily encouraged by the universities with their insistence on students not just achieving level 3 but having 3 lots of 14 credits from approved subjects - which contributed significantly to the big dip in UE last year.

What's going on here? Why is a course that uses standards from a range of areas, say a cross-disciplinary course on an issue like climate change (which could use social studies, geography and physics standards) or a combined ag-hort and business studies course considered 'incoherent' , and thus is unlikely for schools to offer?

The conservatism of universities has a chilling effect on the senior secondary school curriculum, and has for years, but this is a crazy situation when  only around 30% of students go on to university. What's more NZQA doesn't work for the universities and should be encouraging schools to make use of the flexibilities of NCEA rather than enforcing an agenda that's often not in the interests of the majority of students. 


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