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Month: December 2015

Steering the education system (and the car!)

Stuart Middleton


9 December 2015

 In 1962 when I went to get my driver’s licence a uniformed traffic cop hopped into the car and said “Ok, let’s see what you can do!” Once around a city block which included pulling into and out of a parking space and clearly I had done enough. Sitting in the car I was asked three questions, a paper was signed and I set off to the counter to collect my driver’s licence.

It seems a long time ago now, but back in the late 1990’s I was actively promoting NCEA in any way possible and, as Director of Secondary Teacher Education at the Auckland College of Education, one of these ways was to hold a lecture for the secondary teaching intake in which I set out to explain and illustrate the differences between the “old examination system” and the “new standards-based system”

I invited the students to consider a situation in which the practices of the norm-referenced examination system – that long running stable of tired nags, School Certificate, UE / Sixth Form Certificate and Bursary – were applied to the gaining of a driver’s licence.

In a norm-referenced qualification and examination system the gaining of a driver’s licence would look something like this:

  • There would be an examination about the Rode Code, driving on New Zealand roads and perhaps about safety issues. The question would not be known prior to the examination and copies of previous examinations would not be available.
  • The examination for everyone would take place on the same day in an assigned place.
  • Because of the numbers involved and despite the practical nature of driving a car, it would be a written examination – a test about driving a car rather than a test in which the car was actually driven – after all real examinations require fool-proof security!
  • The papers would all be marked by panels of teachers.
  • Despite the actual quality of the examinees, the results would be scaled to produce a lovely curve in which about half passed and about half failed.
  • Many of those who failed might well have been able to drive a car and a group of those who passed might not have been able to – the whole exercise was not about recognizing actual skill or ability that reflected driving skills etc but rather making a statistical guess.

I was thrilled therefore yesterday when Minister of Education Hon Hekia Parata and Assoc. Minister of Transport Hon Craig Foss jointly announced that students could gain NCEA credits for getting their drivers license – 25 years after I had used the example of getting drivers license as a great illustration of the principles of standards-based assessment, it was happening.

Students would….

  • get credit for what they could demonstrate;
  • be able to learn a clearly prescribed knowledge set about driving and be tested on what they had been taught;
  • have access to assessment any where, anytime for anyone;
  • able to gather the total credit available incrementally.

It might be too big a claim to say that the 30 year development of understanding about standards—based assessment had turned a corner. But it is a very small but very significant step for the system to take.

Perhaps another fact that has not been commented on is that the assessment will not be the responsibility of teachers in schools predominantly quality-assured experts in the community will give the tick. Practising experts in the appropriate field will accredit the skills and knowledge demonstrated. This opens up other possibilities.

There is a growing interest in the use of a “passport” to acknowledge the so-called soft skills of employment. Typically this is an assurance from a wide range of different people in different places that an individual has demonstrated a set of skills, dispositions and attributes. It is something that could with a little more codifying lend itself to the gaining of NCEA credits where appropriate.

Indeed it is the application of skills and knowledge gained in school programmes but subsequently applied in real world settings that matters. As this increasingly happens for school students, the school system along a track on which increased numbers of students will find relevance, purpose and excitement.

I have long felt that the introduction of NCEA was likely to be the only paradigm shift in education that my generation of teachers will experience. “Paradigm” is a word that is tossed around with some abandon among academics but it is an event that happens very rarely and has happened seldom in education. An important part of a “paradigm shift” is the period of uncertainly that develops as practice moves away from the comfort of the old ways of working. Gradually a new way of working emerges and the new paradigm is made more manifest. Confidence grows and the new ways of working flourishes.

Is the rapid development of secondary / tertiary programmes, the increasing erosion of the walled sectors, the expansion of different forms of funding and governance of schools, the power shifts of the new pedagogy and, in a small but important way, this cross-boundaries use of our qualification and assessment system reflected in the NCEA credit for driving licences, a sign that we might be turning a corner?

That traffic cop in 1962 was right – let’s see what they can do and give them credit.


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