NCEA levels one, two and three. Internals and externals. Achievement standards and unit standards. University Entrance. Literacy and numeracy requirements. Credit thresholds. Exams and mock-exams. The overassessment caused by our national qualification framework is believed to be a major contributor towards student anxiety, teacher workloads and employer confusion.
The NCEA Review discussion documents created by the Ministry of Education acknowledge this, stating: “Constant assessment can leave little time to focus on rich learning, discourage innovation and risk taking, or crowd out space to try new things”.
The ‘big opportunities’ highlighted by the review propose to solve the issue by rebuilding Level 1 as a 40 credit qualification, instead of the 80 credits currently required. The documents also discuss a cultural shift away from achieving as many credits as possible to instead encouraging quality teaching and learning, though they do not specifically outline how this will be done.
During Education Central’s recent ChalkTalk debate, Associate Education Minister Tracey Martin suggested we look to the Finnish education system for inspiration around how to refocus on learning.
Finnish teachers are responsible for assessment in their respective subjects, on the basis of the objectives included in the curriculum. The only national examination, the matriculation examination, is held at the end of general upper secondary education.
Hobsonville Point Secondary School Principal Maurie Abraham is one of the regional engagement leaders appointed by the NCEA Review. He is concerned the three-tiered system of NCEA has had multiple unintended consequences and has proposed a similar solution in his review submission.
“Deep learning gets sacrificed for more surface learning, just so you can claw your way through the credits. Another consequence of that overassessment and surface learning is increase in student anxiety and stress levels. They’re certainly not having that magic of being engaged in deep learning,” he says.
“What I’ve thought about is that across their final two or three years across the school kids get involved in deep learning and achieve credits similar to what we’ve got now, but maybe there’ll be fewer [assessments] that are worth a few more credits.”
The effect on employers and tertiary providers, who are solely interested in a school leaver’s highest qualification, would be minimal, he says. Students would benefit as their qualification would show the learning they completed, including if they left before the end of the calendar year.
“There might be some milestones that you would expect someone who’s leaving at the end of Year 12 or partway through Year 12 could get to … but someone else might be leaving at that time and they might have gone a bit deeper into some learning and shown greater understanding, so they’d have a different endorsement on their certificate.”
As part of his submission, Maurie proposes each student should also leave with a ‘statement of capabilities’ alongside an academic qualification. This statement would list a student’s attributes based on the soft skills identified by the curriculum.
“In these days, this is a real simple digital doc and kids could submit into that; portfolios, bits of work or where they’ve shown resilience, where they’ve shown critical thinking,” he explains.
“It’s nationwide and it’s got the same sorts of headings, but its school specific, student specific. So you go off to your employer and you say ‘Well, here’s my qualification, I left after halfway through Year 12, I’ve gained this level of the particular qualification in these learning areas and here’s my statement of capabilities which talks about how good I am at, or where I’ve got some gaps in, these important soft skills.
“The statement of capabilities for some teachers and for some schools, that’s going to take a bit of thinking but the NZC document puts the onus of responsibility on us. We’re supposed to be really addressing those values at the front end of the curriculum and those key competencies.”
Maurie describes himself as “anti-Level 1”. The qualification is not offered at Hobsonville Point Secondary School and he says the impact on student and teacher workload has been positive.
“The students still do all the learning, but formal assessment only takes part on bits of it.
“The impact on my staff with the reduction in the formal assessment has been lifesaving for them because one thing that’s really driving teaching down is overassessment. In the same way it’s impacting on kids, it’s impacting on teachers. Teachers are spending too long measuring and not enough time teaching.”
Maurie believes schools are currently forced into a ‘league table’ system and are encouraged to focus on end-of-year results, instead of innovative practice, learning and wellbeing.
He proposes a student’s results should not be reported to NZQA until they leave school, to minimize the restrictions caused by an inflexible calendar-year timetable. This would also reduce competition between schools as results would not be in the public domain, he says.
Parents and boards would still receive information about student achievement in much the same way they currently receive information about Year 9 and 10 progress. ERO reports would also continue to provide transparency to the community about a school’s performance.
“The only stuff that would be reported to NZQA, and therefore become a league table, is graduate data. That should be a league table because the communities and the country should know what the quality and levels of qualification are that all of the leavers of that school are getting.”
The results currently published do not show this, Maurie says, because schools are not required to report on the number of students who leave school during Years 10 and 11.
“Lots of schools aren’t held to account for those kids. If a school reported to NZQA every year its leaver data, and that would include every kid who’s left schooling from your school, you get a true picture of the range of qualifications that are going on.”
Maurie believes the benefits of decreased assessment will extend beyond the school gates, as well as reducing student and teacher workloads and anxiety, and increasing student engagement with learning.
“The world and the country need more than just top academics. It needs people who are creative, who are curious, who can think critically, who can get on with other people,” he says.
“There’s only one qualification of any value to a student and that’s the one they leave with.”