NCEA pass rates at all levels have been steadily increasing in the past few years and last year hit an unprecedented high with 83.5 per cent of 18-year-olds achieving NCEA Level 2. To continue this trend, the Ministry of Education has been set the Better Public Service Target that by 2017, 85 per cent of young people will have achieved NCEA Level 2.

Since NCEA is a standards-based system, the increase in the rates of qualification attainment means that students are gaining credits in more achievement standards than ever before and presumably must be progressing faster, learning better and developing more new skills each year.

On the surface this appears very encouraging and bodes well for our education system. However, the 85 per cent target is a global summative indicator and does not reflect the quality of the mix of achievement standards taken by different students to achieve NCEA.

This raises the question of whether all students, regardless of socioeconomic background or ethnicity, share equitably in this success story.

A recent analysis of 2015 NCEA results carried out by the NZ Herald shows that Māori, Pasifika and low-decile students were less likely to take academic subjects than Pākehā, Asian and high-decile students and were  more likely to be enrolled in internally assessed unit standards, core generics and vocational subjects. Analysis of the data showed that only 45 per cent of Māori students from decile 1 schools were enrolled in academic subjects at Level 2. The NCEA Level 2 pass rate is subsidised by non-academic subjects like barista, service industry and life skills training. From 1 April 2016, students can even earn New Zealand Qualifications Framework (NZQF) credits by obtaining a learner’s, restricted or full driver’s licence.

While these areas are a valuable and necessary source of training, the pressure to achieve NCEA pass rate targets should not perpetuate or reinforce ethnic and decile disparities in enrolment patterns or dilute the academic curriculum.

At the same time as the phenomenal rise in NCEA pass rates, the results of the Programme for International Student Achievement (PISA) study paradoxically shows falls in the achievement of 15-year-old New Zealand students in the key areas of reading, mathematics and science between 2009 and 2012.

While the global NCEA pass rates are a useful indicator, it needs to be considered in conjunction with data on how equitably different groups in the student population engage with the variety of possible pathways provided by the National Qualifications Framework and how this impacts on the school-based curriculum.

Clearly there are differences in the level of engagement for students from different ethnic groups and socioeconomic backgrounds. In addition, overseas studies show that engagement in general declines as students progress through primary and intermediate schools. Some studies estimate that as many as 40–60 per cent of students are disengaged by the time they reach secondary school.

We can cautiously pat ourselves on the back for meeting the summative and global Better Public Service Targets but before we can make a judgement on the general health of NCEA, we need to collect, analyse and monitor wider-reaching data on the factors that affect student achievement, engagement and participation in NCEA. To use a medical analogy, while a quick pulse rate check is a useful indicator for the health of a patient, it needs to be followed up by a thorough blood pressure, cholesterol and ECG check.

At a recent Education Leaders Forum I addressed the ambitious question: What would
it take to optimise achievement for every student, at every year level in every subject area at every school?

The Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring (CEM) at Canterbury University provides two useful diagnostic and analytical tools to do just that.

The first of these is measuring the value added to students by our education system.
CEM analyses NCEA results of participating schools by measuring the growth or value added to each individual student in every subject relative to their performance in a baseline assessment at the start of year 9. Students’ NCEA results are compared against other students of similar ability on school entry.

This provides schools with comprehensive data on the value added to each student and ethnic group in each subject area and provides an evidence base for schools to tailor programmes to students’ needs. The aim is to help all students achieve their potential.

In addition to analysing summative and value added data from NCEA performance, schools need to survey the student voice on factors that affect learning, engagement and achievement.

Students are in a unique position to contribute to a comprehensive view of school and classroom practice because they experience it more than anyone else in the education system. For many years CEM has run the SATIS survey for students in year 7–10 and last year introduced the Student Attitude and Engagement Survey (SAES) for students in year 11–13. The data is useful to schools because student engagement is one of the keys to building a safe, positive and engaging school climate and culture that increases student achievement, and decreases student boredom and disengagement.

Data from year 7–10 students is particularly important given that research indicates that the middle years are a crucial time period for students where student engagement often declines and attitudes to further study are formed.

Schools that participate in the SATIS and SAES can unpack what students have to say about what is happening in the classroom and their school communities. The surveys provide data on students’ perceptions of their school facilities, teachers and the classroom environment. The data identifies effective teaching practices and barriers to learning and articulates student attitudes to learning, work experience, the classroom environment, assessment, future aspirations and career goals.

Schools are starting to use the data to make important changes and improvements, and are seeing the enormous benefits of understanding and strengthening student engagement. The student engagement data is highly correlated to student achievement gains and when interpreted in conjunction with Value Added Assessment data it provides a powerful tool for reflection to improve teaching and learning at the student, subject and school-wide level.

The surveys provide actionable feedback that schools and teachers can use to inform practice to increase the level of engagement and achievement of all students regardless of their socioeconomic or ethnic background.

In addition to assessment and survey data, schools also collect a wealth of demographic and process data which can be analysed. Attendance data is particularly useful. Students who are frequently absent are at risk of disengaging from the school community and dropping out of school.

Rather than viewing absenteeism from a disciplinary perspective, school can use suitable intervention strategies to improve engagement and achievement.

CEM advocates data-driven school level pedagogical decision-making to optimise the performance of every student in every subject area. This can be done by conjointly analysing the data from NCEA results, value added measures, student attitude and engagement surveys and school-based demographic and process data. This analysis can provide an evidence base to identify and support at-risk students, nurture and accelerate able students, improve student engagement, highlight best practice, identify professional development needs and fine-tune school performance.

While the 85 per cent Better Public Service target may be a laudable aim, we have to be careful that it does not become a wolf in sheep’s clothing by diluting the curriculum and accentuating disparities. Let’s broaden the discussion by focusing on the question: What would it take to optimise achievement for every student, at every year level in every subject area at every school?

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