The saying goes that a camel is like a horse designed by a committee. Of course, the analogy does not actually work to denigrate the work of committees – camels are highly adapted to desert life – but, still, the image of a misshapen horse holds meaning, and relevance to NCEA.

The camel analogy grew legs during parts of the merry-go-round of consultation that preceded Minister Hipkins’ recent announcement on NCEA. But despite this his Change Package was a triumph for consultation and common sense.

In contrast to NCEA’s six Big Opportunities presented last year, this change package aligns with the bulk of the recommendations the New Zealand Initiative made in its report “Spoiled by Choice”. It promises a new floor-standard for literacy and numeracy, to re-establish coherent subjects with fewer standards, and to reduce reliance on internal assessments.

Our research showed that as things stand, NCEA masks vast variations in what students have actually achieved. Through this, NCEA paints a picture of growing equity and rising achievement, when international data finds the reverse. It is heartening therefore that the Minister has committed to set externally assessed standardised benchmarks for literacy and numeracy.

However, details remain to be decided. For example, what is meant by external assessments that are ‘not necessarily exams’? How predictable will exams be? And where will the new benchmark go? If NCEA is to raise expectations and standards then the new benchmark needs to be higher, which will likely lead to more failure in the short term.

It will take courage for the Minister to preside over more failure, even when the underlying reason is sound. It will be easier for him if National can continue its bipartisan approach to NCEA. It will also be easier for schools to ensure all children become literate and numerate if we empower them to collaborate by giving them standardised data.

The future of data, and therefore collaboration, lies currently in the hands of the Ministerial Advisory Group on Curriculum, Progress and Achievement. Contrary to the suggestion of the Tomorrow’s Schools taskforce that it is competition which constrains collaboration, the Initiative believes the real constraint may be lack of standardised data. Without the data to prove one school is better than another, why would one school seek help from the other, or even heed their advice when it was offered?

Minister Hipkins has said many times that you do not fatten pigs by weighing them. However, what he must also acknowledge is that weighing serves a valuable purpose; it is only through weighing different pigs that we can find which are best at eating.

Similarly, it is only through measuring students’ achievements that we can find the schools, curricula and pedagogies that best help children succeed. At present, the scope to do this is severely constrained by the lack of standardised data, especially from primary schools. Despite this, the Initiative’s recent IDI work has begun scratching the surface to show the Minister and Ministry the way.

NCEA will always be somewhat of a misshapen horse, but since last week its prospects look better. It feels like it is here to stay.

Briar Lipson’s report Spoiled by Choice: How NCEA hampers education, and what it needs to succeed and a two-page summary are available here. The Initiative’s work from the IDI is available here.

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