It’s 16 years since 2002, year of the ‘guinea pig’. If the NCEA was a person, it would be doing NCEA. NZQA tells me that 986,945 young Kiwis have given it a crack since 2002. That’s one in five Kiwis. Add several thousand more who achieved or finished off NCEA in tertiary providers or industry training. Then think of all their whānau and friends that worried, supported, cajoled, de-stressed, and helped with homework and study. Is there anyone left who hasn’t had something to do with NCEA at some point?
I like to say it in full. “National Certificate of Educational Achievement.” When you have enough educational achievement, New Zealand gives you a certificate. We draw up a list of what every young person knows and can do, to help them walk into the big wide world.
And like every parent knows, different kids have different talents. Some young people find algebra easier than dancing, some find dancing easier than algebra. We are fortunate to have a system that can recognise and reward it all.
It’s good news that Minister Chris Hipkins has announced a review of NCEA this year and I’m especially impressed by the way the review’s Terms of Reference focus on the impact of assessment on both young people and teachers. That shows real emotional intelligence, since in 2002, the students were not the only guinea pigs. Some of the habits that have developed around NCEA have not been respectful enough of the teaching profession. Rigour and robustness is important, but assessment needs to be the by-product of quality teaching and learning.
It’s also heartening to see both Government and Opposition parties talking about NCEA in terms of “unmet potential”. They are right. Bipartisanship on NCEA was critical to its introduction and subsequent survival. Even while, off and on, NCEA has been easy pickings for political point-scoring.
So what was the dream? That academic excellence would be identified and acknowledged. That it would recognise a broader range of achievement drawn from different spheres. That it supports multiple pathways beyond school. That it provides clearer information to end-users, such as employers, about a student’s skills and knowledge. That it support interdisciplinary and cross-curriculum learning. That assessment can be packaged up, or simply fall out of, the learning process. That it could be offered and completed in schools and tertiary education providers and workplace learning. That it could be cross-credited to and from other qualifications to provide head-starts and pathways and seamlessness. That a credit-based system would motivate students and promote lifelong learning.
What wasn’t the dream? That all students would roll through all three levels. That students would be enrolled for twice as many credits as required to complete their qualification. That assessment processes would constrain how the school day is organised, and keep teachers buried in record keeping until late at night. That NCEA would devalue other qualifications on the same levels of the framework. And that ‘pass rates’, both for students and schools would continue to be the way we measured how well schools were doing, and the credibility of the qualification itself.
That is a lot of dreaming, and quite a mix of “achieved” and “not achieved”, depending who you ask. So I will pick just one thing I hope gets a good look in the review: The NZQA Record of Achievement. At the culmination of 12 or so years of schooling, it is the main tool we give our young people to show the world what they are made of. But I struggle to find employers who have seen one. It doesn’t communicate skills in ways that people outside the education system can readily recognise and value. For our young people to experience the benefit of their education, we must improve the way NCEA reports to society about skills, attitudes, and areas of strength. Recent work on vocational pathways and the employability skills framework provides a useful start.
Improving the way NCEA communicates with the outside world would make NCEA a more useful qualification to young people, build trust and credibility in NCEA itself, and address critical concerns about the coherence of NCEA in terms of underpinning skills.
Josh Williams is Chief Executive of the Industry Training Federation, and was a member of the Ministry of Education’s Qualifications Development Group that developed NCEA.