One of the promises made all those years ago when then Minister of Education Hon Dr Lockwood Smith initiated a review of qualifications in New Zealand was that “time served would be dead.” In other words there would be flexibility in the pathways that students could travel towards better futures.
Finally, twenty years later, the small shot has been fired.
You see, as I have said on many occasions, it is not what changes do to schools but rather what schools do to those changes. Ways are found of socialising them into the old ways of working. New approaches end up as the old approaches but described with new words. Thomas Kuhn wrote of the difficulty of avoiding this as he described the nature of a paradigm shift for that is what the proposed changes to the qualifications system was.
First the system has to move away from the old system. The move to competency based assessment is announced and unit standards leading to credit outlined, the move had started.
Secondly, you move into a period of uncertainty in which the final shape of the changes is not yet clear or fixed. This is an unsettling period. In an ideal world where change is easy you then emerge into the third stage where the new world flourishes and we celebrate the improvements that are apparent.
If T S Eliot is right to say that human kind cannot bear very much reality then I say that education cannot bear very much uncertainty. Of course the two are related, to accept the uncertainty of a paradigm shift you have first to accept that the change necessary – in other words accept the reality. In that case the reality was that the examination system was spitting out half the students each year as failures when demonstrably those students often knew quite a lot and had many skills. Being assigned to failure at such an early age is not the best foundation for later success. It is not good for them and it is not good for us!
As a result the education system started to turn the new system into one that fitted the paradigm of the old. Merely demonstrating competence would not do – “achieved” was not enough and “merit” and “excellence” were introduced. Then the unit standards were developed as quasi- curriculum so that they could be taught as courses called NCEA Level 1, NCEA Level 2 and NCEA Level 3. This fitted neatly into the framework of Year 11, replacing School C, Year 12, replacing Sixth Form Cert., and Level 3 replacing Bursary – Scholarship was of course retained for 3% of those studying a subject at Year 13 (there is quite a lot of structure in that statement). What was never understood was that it was the old norm-referenced external assessment lock-step-by-year, lock-step-by-level paradigm that was being replaced.
So the address to the recent SPANZ Conference from NZQA CE Karen Poutasi was exciting in its promise that “….. NZQA intends to change the current paradigm and to discuss with you some of the thinking we have done around digital assessment…..” This was described at length in the speech but in a later radio news report Karen Poutasi described it crisply saying that she “expects that NZQA would deliver assessments to anyone, anywhere, anytime, online and on demand.”
This is the first move in fulfilling the early promise that “time served would be dead.” If the assessments are freed with regard to time, form and place then the structures which currently restrain any move away from the old paradigm no longer apply. Nor need the requirement that students move in room-sized groups through Level 1 then Level 2 then Level 3 apply.
Programmes such as the MIT Tertiary High School are showing that assessment using unit standards and achievements standards across sector boundaries and at multi-levels is not only possible but proving to be in the best interests of students. Add to that the flexibility of web-based assessment and the system can be liberated from the structures that are currently crippling any significant attack on failure, disengagement and low educational outcomes.
I am glad that Karen Poutasi used the word “paradigm”. The changes started twenty years ago are certainly of that order and might now even be achieved. I can already hear the issues that will be raised by the web-based assessment proposal but they will be nothing that cannot be solved. I can imagine that the real crunch will be that teachers who wish change to exploit the opportunities in the interests of their students will be constrained by the command structures of schools and of the wider system.
Thomas Kuhn also made clear the renewed energy that comes with a new paradigm – we could all do with a bit of that!