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Think-Ed: Looking from the outside to find a way forward

Stuart Middleton
24 January 2011

The current discussion about the presence in a prestigious secondary school (Auckland Grammar School) of an external examination sourced from overseas continues to occupy quite a few column inches in the press but there is no attention paid to solutions – it is simply presented as a problem (but to whom it is not clear) for a variety of reasons (that are not specified) and as a threat (but to what is never identified).

At one level it is not an issue. The school is acting within its rights to offer programmes it sees fit and provided they meet the requirements of the New Zealand Curriculum then there are no issues here. The Government exercises its rights to say that all state schools must offer NCEA and the school is, so there is no issue there either.

Considerable progress has been made with the development and introduction of NCEA. As an assessment regime it required all of us to change our thinking and that is never easy and not often welcomed. We treasure most the things we are about to lose and often this is accompanied by an irrational attachment to things we have criticised and indeed even sought to have changed.

There were compelling arguments that the old New Zealand external examination system no longer served us well in terms of the nation’s need and in terms of the commitment to enabling all young people to find a pathway that met their needs. There were strong arguments that the whole business of scaling and the hierarchy of subjects was a gross distortion of achievement. There were reasonable arguments that the world of employers and the business community deserved better information than they were getting. It was obvious that the external examination system was strangling efforts to develop programmes and approaches that suited a wider group of students. As in all areas of activity, education needed to develop a more sophisticated approach to the more complex demands being made on it.

There was also an argument that the needs of the upper band of students pursuing a more purely “academic” pathway headed towards continued “academic” work at a post-secondary level and especially at the university level were being adequately met by the examination system.

Out of all that discussion, reform came along. As I have said many times before, the issue is not what reforms do to schools but what schools do to reforms. The 1990s were marked by battle-lines drawn by both sides of the argument that seemed to want to stymie the qualifications reforms in order to maintain a status quo, not just one status quo but the status quo that suited their particular view of the world. NCEA had not just a difficult birth but had to survive a pretty hostile environment throughout childhood as well. But it proved to be tough and it survived and is starting to show its capacity to provide for greater numbers of students than ever was the case with the single path external examination track of old.

What didn’t get addressed in all this was a mechanism for relating the external examinations for overseas that a school might wish to use to the qualifications framework. That is the issue. Of course the universities have wished to continue to stand outside the qualifications framework for reasons that are not clear even thought they have shown themselves to have no difficulty with NCEA in terms of selection for university and, indeed, it has come in for some support in its capacity to predict success at that higher level.

The wrapping into the qualifications framework of all qualifications was in fact a central principle for the reforms, one which would allow flexibility within the system and allow for the development of pathways that suited different groups within it.[1] That didn’t happen and the framework continues to have to carry this element of incompleteness.

It would be easy for a school offering a programme assessed by external examination to also assess that programme within the NCEA regime and offer their students dual qualifications. There is no need for an externally assessed programme to automatically stand outside NCEA. This would demonstrate that the argument for the external examination programme is based on its quality and appropriateness and not on some argument that is simply against NCEA. But that is for the school to decide not for those of us who are outside.

There are many ways of meeting the demands of the New Zealand Curriculum and it would be absurd to suggest that a programme based on and headed towards an external examination did not. It would be equally silly to suggest that it was the best path for all students. I do not hear that argument being made and personally reject the suggestion that it is the best path for all boys. It is, let us agree, the best path for a school that wishes to produced scholars developed under that model. It is not even the only way of producing scholars but it is one way.

If we are genuinely moving into an era when multiple pathways are required to meet multiple objectives and needs, the role of an external examination for the narrowest band of achieving students in a handful of schools hardly seems to demand our attention. There is plenty of work to be done in seeing that we are providing programmes and assessing them well and appropriately for the other students, the great majority on whom the wealth and success of New Zealand depends.

[1]See Thursday’s blog for the first of a series of discussions of critical documents and moments in and some of the influences on the reforms.

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