NCEA an ‘alluring facade’

With public consultation on the future of NCEA looming, a new report suggests the system has created a “safe passage” for students to graduate with a poor education. Shane Cowlishaw reports

Spoiled by Choice is the latest work from the New Zealand Initiative, undertaken by former deputy principal and maths teacher Briar Lipson.

It comes as a review into NCEA gets underway, the first of its kind since the assessment was introduced by the previous Labour Government in 2002.

NCEA, the unit-based secondary school assessment that replaced School Certificate, Sixth Form Certificate and Bursary, has faced increasing criticism that it places an excessive workload on teachers and does not prepare students with adequate skills for life in the adult world.

In the report, Lipson praises the system for its flexibility and contribution to keeping pupils in school for longer.

But she is strongly critical of the effect it has had on children’s abilities in core subject areas.

Since NCEA was introduced the data on pass rates has shown consistently improving performances in areas such as reading, maths and science, but international education data from PISA revealed the exact opposite, Lipson says.

“If NCEA data can paint a picture of constant improvement, while almost all other measures expose decline, there is a reason to believe we have a problem.”

Lipson points to several reasons for the problem, including a “parity of esteem” where pupils earn equal credits for both a complicated science task or something like tramping.

This means teachers, who are under intense pressure to keep up pass rates, “teach to the test” by creating easy pathways for their students to earn enough credits, she says.

It is particularly problematic for vulnerable children who may lack adequate family advice to tell them that what they were studying could leave them ill-equipped.

“NCEA’s flexibility ensures almost all students achieve a qualification, and creates glowing headlines for government and schools," Lipson says.

“However, the downside is that NCEA also masks huge variation in students’ achievements; widening disadvantage by hiding it behind an alluring facade.”

Lipson says a report from the Tertiary Education Commission in 2014 found 40 percent of Year 12 students with Level 2 NCEA were not functionally literate and 42 percent were not functionally numerate, but nothing has been done.

Her report makes a number of recommendations, including: improving English, Te Reo, and maths requirements; reducing the number of standards; using software to assess standards to ease the burden on teachers; and introducing “elements of surprise” back into external exams.

“If they get credits for picking up rubbish around school or doing a bit of health and safety stuff or whatever, it doesn’t set them up for higher education, it doesn’t set them up for employment, it certainly doesn’t ensure they’ve got literacy and numeracy.”

It would take political courage to make such changes as achievement results would initially slip, but that would be because the bar had been raised, she says.

A good diagnosis, but the wrong recommendations

As the education system prepares for its biggest shake-up in decades, it is likely reports and research such as the NZ Initiative's will proliferate as stakeholders and interest groups apply pressure.

Michael Johnston, a senior lecturer at Victoria University and expert on NCEA, is supportive of Lipson’s work, saying it is essential to push for some change.

“To put it in a nutshell, I tend to largely agree with her diagnosis, but not all her recommendations," Johnston says.

“I’m less enamoured with time-limited exams than Briar is, I don’t really see those as the best solution. I’d rather see us concentrate on improving the internal assessment regime, making it more efficient and more integrated into coherent programmes of learning.”

Johnston does not want to see wholesale change for the sake of it.

He points out that NCEA has many good points, particularly the internal assessment approach that made it much easier for struggling students who were intimidated by exams.

Where he is in complete agreement is the claim that students are being led down poor pathways to NCEA success that is leaving them without the skills to study at a tertiary level or enter the workplace.

This was an “enormous flaw” in the philosophy of NCEA and a “terrible idea”.

“If they get credits for picking up rubbish around school or doing a bit of health and safety stuff or whatever, it doesn’t set them up for higher education, it doesn’t set them up for employment, it certainly doesn’t ensure they’ve got literacy and numeracy.”

Get rid of the ‘hyper-assessment’ culture

Jack Boyle, president of the PPTA, also believes that minimum standards for core subjects need to be improved, describing them as currently meaningless since they can be populated "with any old standard".

But he is wary of Lipson’s suggestion that a pecking order of subjects should be created.

“Once upon a time there may have been a case you needed to have Latin and Greek, but that whole idea of a hierarchy of subjects is one that would need to be navigated very carefully.”

He is also supportive of teaching more broadly across a subject and said it was a reality that teachers were dealing with so much assessment work that they had no choice but to focus on particular areas so students could pass.

“In order to meet your targets, some unfortunate consequences are you have to teach to the test because you have to get X number of students across that magic line...and that’s going to be to the detriment of our young people and society.”

Boyle says this “hyper-assessment” culture needs to change and he questions the need for such intense assessment over three years.

New Zealand is alone in such rigorous assessment and there is merit in the idea of scrapping NCEA level one to focus on a more broader teaching and learning strategy, he says.

“You do not need to have every young person doing an NCEA qualification, nor is there any case for it to have to be done in year 11.”

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