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
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.