I have been enjoying the invitation of the NCEA Review to dream big and look again at the structure of our national assessment. At school we have talked regularly about the ‘Big Opportunities‘ and there have been other conversations across the Wellington region too amongst the Loop schools. Everyone has had plenty to say and there seems to be a general feeling that a review is welcome.

And yet something appears to be missing in the way we are tackling the discussions and it has taken me a while to put my finger on it.

A fuzzy focus for the review

The ‘Big Opportunities’ that frame up the discussion are a well-meaning way of providing a starter for ten, I get that. But this has also served to reduce and fragment the discussion down to, perhaps, less than the sum of its parts. Very quickly, in the discussion, we are down into the weeds of the detail: should we alter credit numbers? how about a Record of Achievement? What about that big project (and why spotlight this single pedagogical approach here)?

[For the record, I think that a system reduction in total credits and a removal of fees will nudge us in a positive direction. Having lived through the ill-fated National Record of Achievement process in the UK in the mid-90s, I’m still to be convinced that opportunity 5 is solving a real problem.]

The principles of the Terms of Reference for the NCEA Review are laudable – but also are far broader than any assessment framework can provide. The scope of the review is so wide that discussions have become far-ranging and, perhaps, a little muddied. For example, the Terms of the review state:

  • “the full potential of NCEA has yet to be fully realised, likely due in part to the way targets around credit accumulation have driven the implementation of the qualifications.”
  • “The review will be guided by the overall aim of ensuring the robustness of NCEA, and by a commitment to ensuring that NCEA recognises the position of Māori appropriately”

With such an all-encompassing scope, the Ministry has tried to direct traffic a little with the Big Opportunities but, as a result, we can find ourselves seeing these six ideas as the default for change.

The ‘cart’ of assessment has been put before the ‘horse’ of curriculum. The defined problem – that NCEA is a barrier to innovation in learning – omits a key driver of change. I believe we are missing a coherence argument related to the over-arching positioning of the curriculum (or lack of) in this debate.

Curriculum drives coherence, not NCEA

Those of us who remember NCEA being rolled out will recall that enormous effort was put into professional development — some of you will remember the ‘Jumbo Days’ in the early months/years and these were often invaluable. But even these were about getting to grips with standards-based assessment, not necessarily curriculum design.

First, came NCEA (2002-2004) then came the NZ curriculum (2007+). I was involved in the realignment of standards (2009+) but by then the horse had bolted. At no time were we in the English team enabled to talk with those realigning other subject areas. And in fact, since the introduction of NCEA, I’m not sure there has been ANY wholesale, national attempt to restart the assessment design dialogue from the point of view of the curriculum, with the cross-cutting threshold concepts, and the vital underpinning knowledge that informs effective teaching.

All secondary schools in NZ will now have staff who have never taught before NCEA. Their professional development and mentoring have happened in schools in which we know NCEA standards have become the default senior curriculum. This is not about apportioning blame – but it reflects the ‘back to front nature’ of the way we are approaching the review. While we carry ‘old’ mental models of senior curriculum design, imagining ourselves into a brave new world is a huge challenge – hence the default to the ‘big opportunities’ which rather limit the review.

There have been NZ schools that have started curriculum (re)programming from scratch. But for most secondary schools, the job of curriculum design that maps across learning areas is almost beyond the reach of the PD time available and requires expertise in curriculum design. To approach this would require:

  • days of teachers talking across faculties and within,
  • deep understanding of the knowledge that defines and underpins the different learning areas,
  • time to explore where the learning areas are both discrete and connected, the threshold concepts that cut across and differentiate. Then,
  • formulation of programmes of study with students, defined by local needs, and only then
  • ..begin to look for assessment opportunities against NCEA.

The recent ERO publication What drives learning in the senior secondary school (May 2018), captures this deftly. It focuses on the drivers for effective learning:

“ERO looked at the ways these schools provided a coherent curriculum, rather than one dominated by assessment requirements. We found a minority of these schools showed it was possible to plan and implement senior learning pathways based on the principles, vision, values and competencies, outlined in the NZC. These schools were able to show student progress towards broader outcomes that amount to deeper learning…..

Generally, schools’ senior curricula do not clearly demonstrate the relationship between the principles, values, and key competencies of NZC and programmes of teaching and learning that contribute to achievement of NCEA…..

Where a coherent curriculum was evident, leaders identified compelling reasons for aligning the school’s curriculum to NZC and made changes accordingly…

[The] more innovative approach seemed to depend on the confidence and experience of the teachers”

…Schools expressed the sense of doing it alone when it came to achieving coherence in the senior curriculum. They expressed a desire for better public understanding about the NZC and NCEA, nationally, and for sound professional guidance for leaders and teachers who plan and implement the school’s senior curriculum and subsequent assessment.”

Why we need to go back to create the future

We know, then, that an assessment framework that is fit for purpose, relevant and manageable is driven through programme design. The curriculum is our blueprint for change, not NCEA.

Systems and processes related to the management of moderation, the number of credits available, and achievement reporting are comparatively straightforward to streamline in a review and will be welcomed — but I suspect schools already know that we need to provide powerful learning (opportunity 1), enhanced literacy and numeracy (2), connections beyond schooling (3), and rich, broad courses (4).

If we are to achieve the aims and principles of the NCEA review, the biggest opportunity would be to help schools to develop a coherence of curriculum design at whole school and programme level. We need to go back to the time when the curriculum was introduced. Look at it with fresh eyes as a starting point for senior programme design, then weave in NCEA. Let’s revisit those Jumbo Days and support schools to reimagine the senior curriculum design first, rather than (or at least at the same time as) looking at reimagining assessment

And the government must look to support it – otherwise we are simply tinkering with the goalposts of a qualification when the real game-changers are our own mental models about curriculum design.

Karen Spencer is a Deputy Principal at Wellington High School. This article was originally published on her blog and is republished with permission.

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