The publication of the report, Spoiled by Choice: How NCEA hampers education, and what it needs to succeed, coincides with the beginning stages of the statutory review of NCEA by the Ministry of Education.

NZI Research Fellow and report author Briar Lipson says NCEA was set up with laudable aims of reducing inequity in education, but its flexible structure also comes at significant cost.

“It is masking widening and worsening educational inequity. I think if the public realised that alongside rising NCEA scores, our performance in international tests is falling, then they’d demand a more serious look at the structural problems of NCEA.”

Her report makes seven recommendations to raise the credibility, equity and outcomes of the NCEA system. These recommendations are:

  • Raise English (and Te Reo) and maths requirements so that achievement at Level 1 or higher requires a minimum number of Level 1 credits in the core subjects of English (or Te Reo) and maths, meeting international benchmarks for functional literacy and numeracy.
  • Expect a broader core of subjects.
  • Reduce the number of standards so that within a particular subject there is minimal choice and each standard covers a bigger and broader set of skills and knowledge.
  • Make it harder to teach to the test, moving away from close matching of external assessment to past assessments and specifications. Instead, inject elements of ‘surprise’.
  • Reduce reliance on internal assessment so it is used only where external assessments cannot capture performance in essential areas.
  • Use Comparative Judgement software to improve the reliability and efficiency of the processes available to judge external and internal assessments.
  • Commission independent analysis of NCEA’s effects.

Secondary teachers’ union the PPTA welcomes the report describing it as a “careful and well-argued” piece.

“NCEA has led to excessive and unnecessary workload for teachers and students, and this must change,” says president Jack Boyle.

“The implementation of NCEA, and its flexibility, has also led to unintended and negative effects on equity. This must be addressed in the review.”

Of the specific recommendations, the PPTA says some of them will be covered by this year’s NCEA review, including raising English and maths requirements and widening the breadth of core subjects.

Of the latter, Boyle says there is some concern about whether the “multi-field” nature of the NCEA had gone too far, i.e. the ability for an NCEA to be made up entirely of unit standards such as ITO standards.

“Our members would probably favour all students continuing with English, Mathematics and Science, and possibly a Social Science to the end of Year 11 and possibly Year 12.”

The union also favours the recommendation of reducing the number of standards.

“We would be interested in anything that would reduce assessment, including the possibility of shifting to fewer standards that ensure students have a broad experience of the subject.”

However, Boyle says there is still a place for internal assessment for the knowledge and skills that can’t be assessed in an exam.

He also doesn’t view the implementation of the Comparative Judgement software as a priority. Nor did he think there was much need for an independent analysis of NCEA when there is a major review about to get underway.

A year 9-13 English teacher, who does not wish to be named, says the current system encourages students to focus on gaining an arbitrary number of credits and undervalues any other learning which may occur.

“Once they have their 80 (credits) a lot of students will say ‘Oh well, what’s the point of doing the next assessment or sitting the exam’, even if those things have great potential for them to learn and for them to practice and for them to grow,” he says.

“You might get students who work hard for say seven months and reach that point, and then there’s all this learning they could be doing, but they’re kind of incentivised to stop.”

While some of the plans outlined in the Ministry’s review are positive, he is concerned it may be tinkering around the edges rather than thinking about serious structural changes, which he believes are needed to change the incentives inherent in the system.

“They do address some of the problems, but I think still the structure is students spending their whole time collecting up big groups of credits and chunking up subjects in this fashion,” he says.

“Unless you look at those, I don’t know if you’re going to see big changes happen.”

While there is ‘significant overlap’ between the report and the NCEA review, especially regarding issues around teacher workload and over-assessment, Lipson says that although within scope, some of her recommendations are not covered explicitly by the review outline.

“A reduction of internal assessment and a reversal of chunking doesn’t seem to be widely spoken about, but those are the two obvious, practical solutions to the problems rightly-identified by Minister Hipkins.”

Lipson says the first five recommendations trade some of NCEA’s flexibility for higher equity and standards. This may generate a drop in NCEA achievement in the short term, but ultimately establish NCEA as a credible qualification.

“Teachers would need support and time to get used to the new structure but in the long run it would work in favour of teachers because it would reduce workload and improve curriculum coherence.

“I suspect there is an appetite for better understanding of NCEA. The problem with its complexity is that it puts it almost beyond public scrutiny, it relies a huge amount on public trust. The system was designed to improve educational equity and the main finding of my report is that NCEA is actually masking widening disadvantage.”

The NZ Initiative is also planning a second report which will focus on the curriculum, Lipson says.

“We wanted to be able to support the ministry with the review which is scheduled for 2018, which is why the assessment report has come first. In the curriculum report we’ll compare our curriculum with others, we’ll look at how a curriculum can support (or otherwise) teachers to deliver a broad and balanced education, and we’ll also look at some of the cognitive science about how we go about developing skills like problem solving and creativity.”

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