By: Simon Collins

Pukekohe High School final-year student Atarangi Thompson is in no doubt: physics is hard.

“Some subjects like English, maths and science are a lot harder mentally to understand,” she says, after a lesson that included the equation for splitting the atom and having to explain why the energy lost in an atomic explosion is equivalent to the increase in mass.

But in our system the intellectual rigour of those subjects is not given greater value. “Demonstrate understanding of atomic and nuclear physics” is worth 3 credits at Level 2 of the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA). “Experience day tramps” is worth exactly the same.

“Walking can be hard physically,” Atarangi says. “But this stuff – it’s more that you need to learn more. I think that harder subjects should be worth a lot more credits.”

A new report by the New Zealand Initiative, a business-funded think tank, says we have failed a generation of young people like Atarangi by giving them no incentive to extend themselves.

We have deluded ourselves into thinking we are doing well because students leaving school with at least NCEA Level 2 have increased dramatically from 58 per cent of school-leavers in 2005 to 80 per cent in 2016.

But in the same period our 15-year-olds’ scores in global tests for the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) have been sliding in all three subjects – reading, maths and science.

Using NCEA data, you would think the educational gaps between our socio-economic and ethnic groups have been marvellously closing. In the five years to 2016 the proportion of 18-year-olds with at least NCEA Level 2 leapt by 17 percentage points for Māori, and by 13 points for Pasifika, compared with only 9 points for Pākehā.

Yet in University Entrance (UE), which does not count non-academic subjects such as “Experience day tramps”, the ethnic gaps have actually widened slightly since NCEA began in 2002.

The proportions of both Māori and Pasifika school-leavers with UE rose by 11 points from 2001 to 2016, compared with an average gain across all school-leavers of 15 points.

Mountainbiking and experiencing day tramps are two of the standards that outdoor education students at Pukekohe High School are assessed on for NCEA. Photo / Jason Oxenham

NZ Initiative report author Briar Lipson, who helped start several academy or charter schools in Britain before moving to New Zealand last year, quotes research by Herald journalist Kirsty Johnston, who found Māori and Pasifika students are disproportionately channelled into non-academic subjects such as hospitality and retailing.

“It is hard to avoid the suspicion that at least some of this apparent improvement is based on learning that is of dubious value,” Lipson says in the report.

“To create a national assessment system that pretends all subjects – from meat processing to mathematics – are equal, is a deception, and one that falls hardest on the very students most deserving of protection.

“There is no magic bullet or shortcut to educational equity. But NCEA disregards this difficult reality and instead places a deceit at the heart of our national assessment by suggesting to children that filling plastic containers holds the same value as studying literature, physics or Te Reo.”

NCEA defines “standards” for students to reach and encourages teachers to get all – or at least the vast majority – of their students up to those standards.

The official NCEA guidance from the NZ Qualifications Authority (NZQA) says: “Students should not be assessed for a standard until the teacher is confident that achievement of the standard is within their reach, or until the final deadline for assessment, if there is one.”

If students still fail, they can be offered another assessment “after further learning has taken place”.

All academic subjects, and a huge range of trades and other learning areas, have been broken down into chunks, or standards, which are mostly worth between 3 and 5 credits.

The number of credits for each standard is not based on how “hard” the subject is, but on time taken. In theory, each credit should need 10 hours of learning.

Lipson says the way NCEA is structured has made it “a perversion of the intention of any assessment”.

A head of English at a provincial high school told her: “Many students can only produce the standard of work required on a one-off basis, and only because the teacher drags them ‘over the line’. Give the student a similar task two months later and ask her/him to replicate the result independently, inevitably s/he can’t.”

This teacher explained to the Herald on Sunday that internal assessment requires teachers to be both “coach and referee”. It’s in everyone’s interests – teacher, school, student and parents – for the teacher to pass every student.

“Say it’s a piece of persuasive writing,” he says. “The teacher teaches them the structure of the piece, might give them the topic.

“Essentially the teacher keeps polishing that work, and all of that can be classed as ‘formative feedback’, and only when the teacher is satisfied that the work is of ‘achieved’ standard should the student hand it in.

“If I teach a Year 11 boy how to write a five-paragraph essay stating cows shouldn’t be able to urinate in the river, he can pass.

“But if I give them a different topic, say ‘write to the Prime Minister saying housing prices are unaffordable’, he can’t. He can write that one single essay that you have given endless rounds of feedback on.”

Lipson argues for two big changes to restore the system’s integrity:

  • Restore a “core curriculum” of English or Te Reo, maths, science and perhaps a social science or a language, which every student must take at least through Year 11, and put the separate “chunks” of learning back into whole subjects so that students can no longer pick and choose what they learn; and
  • Abolish internal assessment and restore external exams in all subjects that can be examined externally, with questions that can’t be predicted.

Her report is well timed. Education Minister Chris Hipkins has set up a wide-ranging review of NCEA, with a discussion document due out next month and recommendations for change due in September.

PPTA president Jack Boyle supports reducing internal assessment to reduce workload pressure on teachers. File photo

There is surprising consensus about much of Lipson’s analysis. Post Primary Teachers Association president Jack Boyle says most teachers would support “all students continuing with English, maths and science and possibly a social science to the end of Year 11, maybe Year 12”.

He also supports reducing internal assessment to reduce the burden on students and teachers.

But he says some internal assessment is still required to encourage learning projects that might span several subjects or standards.

“Don’t call it internal assessment every two weeks,” he says. “Move towards collaborative portfolio project-based learning where you cover the curriculum as best you can and hang the assessment off that learning experience.”


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