Week in Review

NCEA changes will be high-stakes

The University of Auckland's Dr Aaron Wilson examines the potential impacts of new changes to NCEA - both good and bad 

Recently-announced changes to NCEA have the potential to incentivise educators at all levels of the system to confront rather than side-step important national challenges in student learning, such as inequitable and worsening patterns of literacy.

A key problem for the credibility of the qualification - and its effect on the education of our young people - is that the marked increase in the number of students gaining qualifications under NCEA has not been associated with real improvements in academic learning at a system level.

So what do I see as the positives to come out of the review? Well firstly, I am pleased some key features of NCEA have been retained. It would have been a huge step backwards if we had reverted to a norm-referenced system like School Certificate where the same proportion of students inevitably failed or passed; or we went back to an (almost) entirely examination-based system where students speaking in English courses was assessed via their writing in an exam about techniques they had (or had not) used in a speech that they had (or had not) ever delivered.

The key feature of NCEA that will change is the freedom individual schools and departments have to design their own programmes by picking and choosing from a large pool of achievement standards. This is now to be restricted dramatically.

Rather than having 10 or so smaller achievement standards, there will only be four “bigger” achievement standards available for each subject at each level, two internal and two external. In most cases, a “standard” programme anywhere in New Zealand would assess students using only these.

This will mean a lot more consistency nationally in what is assessed while allowing for huge variety still in how teachers prepare students for those standards, and the contexts they use to do this. This is, to my mind, just as it should be and it goes some way to addressing my main concern with NCEA, which has been its effect on students’ opportunities to learn.

High stakes assessment and qualification systems have a strong influence on the taught curriculum. Often this is framed negatively as “teaching to the test” where low value tests lead to narrowing of the curriculum and more focus on skill and drill-type test preparation and less on contextualised, high level, cognitively challenging, enjoyable and creative aspects. Poor tests can drive poor pedagogy.

“Teaching to the test” can also have a positive influence on teaching – but only when the assessment is valid and reliable. High-stakes assessments can lead to widening of the curriculum, better integration of content and more student-centred learning.

At the University of Auckland’s Woolf Fisher Research Centre, we have conducted studies that have demonstrated a troubling relationship between achievement standards offered by schools and the kinds of disciplinary literacy teaching observed in subject classrooms. Disciplinary literacy refers to the specialised academic language that a historian, scientist or mathematician learns so they can read, write, speak, listen and think like an historian or a scientist or a mathematician. A role of school is to apprentice students into these specialised languages.

Our studies found students in the lowest decile schools were significantly less likely than students in even decile three schools to be enrolled in biology, English and mathematics achievement standards where high levels of reading or writing were required.

Even more troubling was that our classroom observations showed that, on average, students in schools with low enrolment rates in high literacy standards actually experienced fewer opportunities to read in class, to talk about text or to learn about or discuss reading strategies. Even when literacy instruction did occur, it tended not to be directed towards more complex aspects of text structure and critical literacy.

In short, the students who, on average, were most in need of high-quality opportunities to develop disciplinary reading and writing actually received fewer opportunities.

My criticism is not of teachers. Classroom teachers are incredibly busy and it is difficult to find time to prioritise teaching about aspects of the curriculum that are not assessed; deciding not to assess one aspect of the curriculum is in most cases going to lead to a reduced teaching focus on that aspect.

My criticism is that too much choice in achievement standards has allowed schools to “opt out” of assessing and - more importantly - teaching critical components of disciplines that their students find most difficult. The system has encouraged schools to focus on aspects of the curriculum that students are already good at rather than on what they most need to develop in. Of course, all learning should build on existing knowledge, interests and strengths, but the point of education is not to reward students for knowledge they already have but to extend them in ways they might not think possible.

There have been claims that the changes will stifle some schools’ efforts to develop new and innovative interdisciplinary programmes. Currently, for example, a school can make 'Pacific studies' a subject and assess students using achievement standards from geography, art, English and science with all learning focused on Pacific contexts.

I cannot see anything in the report that would stop a school offering a programme made up of four achievement standards from four different subject areas or to include standards from different levels. I would be concerned if such interdisciplinarity was prevented in the changes.

However, I would have been much more concerned if interdisciplinarity was made compulsory; it is wonderful if schools can design integrated programmes that really do justice to the specialised knowledge of each discipline, but it very hard to do this without some subjects being diluted or subsumed by others.

There is little detail yet about the new literacy requirement that will be a co-requisite for NCEA. It is deeply problematic that we currently have a literacy requirement does not actually require students to demonstrate literacy. And no, I’m not being hyperbolic. Students, parents, employers and tertiary providers deserve better. Hopefully, making a robust literacy requirement part of an NCEA overhaul will result in schools putting more focus on developing literacy, particularly in high school and the government putting much more resource into supporting their efforts to do so.

All the potential I’ve discussed above depends on the quality of the new achievement standards and the literacy requirement and the support given to schools and teachers to implement and prepare students for them. My concern is the impact that a sudden and marked drop in pass rates is going to have on vulnerable schools, communities, whanau and students. It seems inevitable to me that pass rates for low decile schools are going to drop, at least in the short term.

These schools and teachers are going to need professional development and other support from this and successive governments to really transform learning about the hard stuff. They do not deserve to be pillorised when pass rates drop. After all, they have been responding in completely rational ways to government targets and media league tables that have focused on the quantity rather than quality of academic qualifications.

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