Pathways-ED: The Tangled Web we Weave!


There is less than meets the eye with the series the NZ Herald has published this week on NCEA Schools under a claim that it tells us how well our schools are performing.

The results cannot be taken at face value for a number of reasons.

First, the figures presented are simply percentages of those who participated in NCEA at the level deemed appropriate for that year. They do not include those who drop out of school, those who are not entered by the schools, those who do not finish the year and so on.

The only true measure of success for education organisations is the percentage of the cohort who succeed. So the figures that we need for school success in 2011 are the percentages of the respective cohorts (2007, 2008, 2009) who succeeded. But even these figures are distorted by those who do accumulate enough credit to claim success at a level over two or three years. And further distorted by the transience that is a feature of schools. The cohort Year 13 will have quite a proportion of students who were not in the 2007 cohort.

So a national measure might be the way to get a true picture of our schools performance as a system. These are the figures:

These are the 2010 figures that are the actual performance of the cohort (i.e. for the group that started secondary school in 2006) in NCEA.

At the end of Year 13 NZ students with NCEA Level 2:

  •        NZ European                             68%             
  •        Asian                                          74% 
  •        Maori                                          43%
  •        Pacific                                        58%

 At the end of Year 13 NZ students with NCEA Level 3: 

  •        NZ European                             42%             
  •        Asian                                          54% 
  •        Maori                                          17%
  •        Pacific                                        24%

And these statistics raise the second issue. The success and/ failure in NCEA is no reflection of equity in our community. Our schools are not bringing students through to meet levels where they have a basis for going forward with education and training. The Herald tables don’t tell us this.

Nor do the league tables tell us about the gaps that exist. For instance, in one area of Auckland the school figures look pretty good with a wide range of results mostly above 65% and liberally sprinkled with 70+ and even 80+ percentages. Well done, I say. But as was always the case with the old School Certificate system, success masked failure.

But a measure of the same area shows that at age 15 there are, in round figures, 1,500 learners in the area. At Age 17 this group is reduced to around 700 and at Age 19 there are only 400 left. This level of disengagement from education and training will always be hidden in the league tables as they have been presented.

The third fallacy that the tables perpetrate is the view that NCEA in itself represents an achievement. NCEA is simply on the way to something else and it is that something else, the post-secondary qualification, that becomes the basis of success in employment and in most respects, life and how are we going in this.

I did a little exercise in 2010 that took 100 babies born in 2010 and applied all the success profiles that we have for the different ethnic groups in the baby cohort and asked “How many will have a post-secondary qualification in 2033 – a generous timeframe. I concluded that 29% was the answer. Now this was not an elegant statistical exercise but some who knew much better concluded that the result “looked about right”.

And so to the fourth fallacy. There are quite a few students, just how many is not fully understood but it could be quite a large group, who get the equivalent of NCEA Level 2 through other pathways – foundation and bridging programmes in tertiary education, courses and qualifications from private providers and so on. Getting a more accurate picture of performance is going to be critical.

Because the Better Public Service Goal of the Government is a brave target – 85% of all 18 year olds having NCEA Level 2 (or its equivalent) by 2017. And this is a target to be interpreted in a way that does not allow for the poor performance of some groups of learners to be obscured by the excellent performance of others.

But the NZ Herald and I imagine quite a few in the community and I also imagine some schools will have either been tickled pink or turned green with envy at the whole rather meaningless exercise.

Alexander Pope had the measure of all this:

“Oh, what a tangled web we weave 
 When first we practice to deceive!”



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