On Friday I attended a NZQA Principal’s Nominee (PN) Seminar that happens every year. Based on past experience I had braced myself for messaging that always felt completely at odds with the messages I had heard from NZQA whilst involved with their Future State Brainstorming Group. In the past I always felt I heard (from the top) a very genuine desire for schools to get on and innovate and really test the capacity for NCEA to be genuinely personalised to meet the needs of students. I would then head along to a PN Seminar and feel like that message had been lost, with PNs being encouraged to maintain relative conservative gatekeeping habits that so often meant schools are no where near as creative and responsive as they might (and should) be. Last Friday was different. For the first time I got the sense that NZQA was challenging PNs to evolve and adapt their practice. Hoorah!
However what did still concern me was the prevailing mindset of the room. When asked to identify barriers for changing practice we still heard the tried and true excuses for retaining the status quo. The community wouldn’t cope with us removing Level One. The community doesn’t want fewer standards. The students don’t value what isn’t assessed. Students love exams. Parents love exams. What about our Metro magazine results and league tables? We don’t want to narrow the curriculum. Low performing students need Level One to have a sense of success. And so it went on.
The more we discussed perceived barriers it was clear that so many deeply embedded mental models were at play. Assessment seemed to equate to learning with standards a proxy for learning objectives and any real curriculum design. NCEA was the main or possibly the only measure of student success. And NCEA was clearly being used as both a carrot and a stick as it was seen as a way for students to value learning and the source of motivation. Schools were still thinking in siloed subjects and somehow seeing exams as more valuable than internal assessment (also this was less so than in the past). So much value was placed on the perception of outsiders and assumptions about what the community, board, teachers and students think and feel. Student wellbeing and creativity was completely AWOL as drivers in any of the discussions I was privy to. Another concern was that these we all perceived as very real concrete “barriers” which painted them as both permanent and insurmountable. This is the part our first mindset we need to address. They are not barriers. They are simply challenges we need to hurry up and overcome.
Of course schools are evolving, there was evidence that all schools were looking to address credit farming by capping credits in each subject. It was alarming though that for several schools, the way to address the stress of Level One was by bringing assessments into Year 10?! What’s driving this? Our students are stressed by the level of high stakes assessment in Year 11, I know what we can do, let’s assess them earlier and for longer, let’s stretch out NCEA to three and a half or four years rather than three! Or is it that they think Year 10s need to be motivated by some good old fashioned high stakes assessment? I’m not sure which I find more disturbing. Actually I do know what I find more disturbing, schools that insist on Year 9s engaging in faux high stakes assessments and exams in preparation for said stretching out of NCEA – that will definitely foster a love of learning! When we know the idea of high stakes end of year exams are on the way out, why on earth would we bother. And don’t even try and convince me it’s about practice. I simply call bullsh*t on that one.
At this point I want to point out that I am not attacking the PNs. They are merely a proxy, upholding and reinforcing a school wide mindset, that is ultimately the responsibility of the school leaders. Although I do think school leaders need to to check the messaging of their PNs as I have seen many examples of NCEA gatekeeping practices that are odds with the school’s supposed vision and values.
I guess what I am getting at is that NCEA is already incredibly flexible and designed to be a veritable smorgasbord of standards that can be combined and curated, mixed and multi-levelled to respond to the the strengths, interests and needs of our learners. NZQA are already encouraging schools to assess less and focus less on Level One. For the most part NCEA and NZQA is not the problem. The problem lies in what see as our drivers for curriculum and assessment design and actually the lack of real “design” at all. Schools, for the most part, have been sleep walking through NCEA, having adopted it, for the most part, as a straightforward replacement for School Certificate, Sixth Form Certificate and Bursary. And I’m not blaming teachers for this. Teachers are bloody busy and stretched in all directions and NCEA was introduced so quickly after the New Zealand Curriculum that we never did have the chance to pull apart the richness of that guiding document before we were forced to refocus on assessment and getting our head around NCEA. My worry is that a high level NCEA review may not address the very real issue of mindset and the perception that NCEA is far less flexible than it really is.
When I spoke up about the different approaches we have at Hobsoville Point Secondary School, our ideas were quickly dismissed because we we were a “new school”, with new buildings and new staff. I can reassure you our teachers, deep down came with the same mindset as every other educator. Yes, we could “hand pick” the more creative ones, but all of us come from normal secondary schools from around the country. Our community is as conservative as any. And the last time I checked the building is really not the main driver of our curriculum or assessment design, although it does enable larger integrated classes (note to Macleans College please don’t dismiss the power of this, flexible teaching spaces are awesome!). But the advantage I do recognise that we did have, is that we have a courageous school leader who was determined to put the needs of our learners first. And he appointed a leadership team who he believed supported this AND we were given the gift of time to de-school and research how we wanted our schooling experience to be.
I guess my point I am getting to is this. An NCEA Review will come to nothing if the mindsets, toolsets, skillsets, and the moral purpose and courage levels of our school leaders remain the same.
Yes you might be able to make structural changes to NCEA so that the tail effectively wags the dog (i.e. Level One gets removed and exams stop being the source of course endorsement and internal assessments are supported by national markers so we can “trust” them), but real change won’t happen until we see leaders who are genuinely addressing student wellbeing and the very real creative needs of our 21st century learners. Will the NCEA or any review address that?
I could go on about what I see as fulling these needs, but I have already waffled on enough. You can check out some ideas here:
An read this ERO report f any doubt about why our assessment practice must change.
Claire is a Deputy Principal at Hobsonville Point Secondary School – a brand new secondary school that opened for students in 2014. She is council member of the Education Council, Aotearoa, NZ and also sits on the NetSafeNZ board. Claire also enjoys contributing to a wide range of advisory boards and reference groups. In 2011-2012 Claire was the Director of e-learning at Epsom Girls Grammar School. She has lead and taught English in a variety of roles. She has worked at a national level in assessment and curriculum in English. In 2009 Claire was a Ministry of Education e-fellow for which she undertook a study of how ICTs can be used to support literacy in and beyond the English classroom. Claire is passionate about her family, education, fashion and tattoos, living by the mantra – “you can never be overdressed or overeducated”.