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NCEA under review: current approach missing the mark

As high school students move into the final week of study before NCEA exams kick off, discussion regarding the effectiveness of the assessment system - due to be reviewed in the New Year - continues. Teuila Fuatai reports

Fifteen years after the National Certificate of Educational Achievement system was rolled out, New Zealand’s schools and teachers are still struggling with it.

Unmanageable teacher workloads, inconsistent marking standards and questionable awarding of credits have all hit headlines over the years. A review of the system, which the Labour Party included as part of its education plan, was already set down for next year by the Ministry of Education - however details of exactly what is under review are yet to be released.

Dr Michael Johnston, senior education lecturer at Victoria University, said a fundamental change to how NCEA was being approached needed to occur for it to work properly.  

“The big deal is the relationship between the standards that are used to assess and the curriculum,” he said.

Currently, the majority of NCEA assessment took place internally in schools. Students were taught a topic, and assessed with a standard - a process repeated throughout the school year.

“The problem is that the standards weren’t designed to be topics,” Johnston said. “They are assessment units, not curriculum units and ... they’re not meant to be just taken apart and taught in schools in discrete bits.”

Ideally - and what Johnston believed to be the original vision for how NCEA operated - courses would be designed so tasks performed by students built learning and contributed towards “evidence” of achievement of standards throughout the year.

Under this approach, constant assessment of standards would not occur as courses would no longer be rooted in topics which ticked off single standards as the year progressed, he said.

“Once we’d reach a certain point in the year, teachers would put together - for each student - what they’d done and make decisions about which standards to award them, and at what level, whether that’s Achieved, Merit or Excellence”.

Essential to that is buy-in and understanding across the sector, which is what next year’s review could address, he said.

“The problem with NCEA is that it’s very, very far from foolproof. It’s a tool that if you know how to use it, you can get a lot out of it, but if you don’t, you can make a real mess. And at the moment, we're not using the system as well as we could.

Teachers have never been taught how to use NCEA in a way that doesn’t focus on single-topic standard assessment and achievement, Johnston said.

“Teachers should really be designing their own approaches for assessing their courses. That’s what NCEA designed to do, and that’s a big ask for teachers, and they’ve got to be supported to do it.

“If we got most of the schools using NCEA in the way it should be used, I think it would be an enviable system,” he said.

Dr Peter Rawlins, senior education lecturer at Massey University, said revisiting whether three levels of assessment was really needed under NCEA would also be useful in the review - a sentiment echoed by new Education Minister Chris Hipkins.

“Most countries in the world only have two years of assessment at the senior level,” Rawlins said.

And while this would be Rawlins' preference for New Zealand, thorough examination of how that would be practically implemented would have to take place.

“As soon as you make two levels, you’ve got to be able to cope with the range of kids - some who may struggle to get level one, and others who easily get level three - coming into that first level [year 12 for most students]. That can be really difficult.”

Rawlins, whose teaching background is in high school mathematics, also questioned the validity of having different numeracy and literacy requirements for university entrance.

“It’s 10 credits at level one for numeracy, and 10 credits at level two for literacy. Why are we not expecting our students to be as numerate as they are literate?”

“The requirement to have level two numeracy would emphasise how important it is to be numerate in today’s work. It [almost] devalues it by having it lower than literacy,” he said.

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