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The Sad Case of NCEA and Nostalgia

The Sad Case of NCEA and Nostalgia

Stuart Middleton


4 October 2018

There are people who think strategically with their gaze fixed firmly on the rear view mirror.

Others base their views of the future on nostalgia. This is, of course, served up with huge dollops of sentiments around “keeping that which we cannot afford to lose.” These thoughts are usually recollected through a haze by people who believe that they are the privileged ones (they usually are in fact) ordained to protect those who don’t know what’s good for them (they usually do but no-one asks them).

NCEA was comprised during its difficult birth by the introduction of features that have their origins in a hankering for elements in the assessment systems of the past that were being replaced. I remember the delight of the NZQA staffer who announced to the assembled Ministers Principals Lead Group in the early 1990s that he had an answer to the charge that NZEA does not reward those who are, for one reason or another, simply better than others.

“Let’s have different levels of ‘Achievement’ rather than the then proposed ‘Achieved /Not Achieved’ that students were to receive depending on whether they had or had not demonstrated that they had met the standard”. And so the triplets ‘Achieved’, ‘Merit’ and ‘Excellence’ were born to the delight of some and the unease of others. It was to be a staged bell curve that preserved the elements of the old examination system – “scholarship” later added weight to the impact of this.

Never mind that it was an abrogation of the notion of standards based assessment. Forget that there were other more profitable ways to take account of the levels at which students could achieve – tackling higher levels and moving more quickly are two that spring to mind.

That reminds me that another genuflection to received practice is the packaging of NCEA into organisational bits separated by Christmas. Schools were used to marshalling students and delivering curriculum in age-related batches called “Forms” and more latterly “Years” and it seemed necessary to deliver NCEA as if it was a programme rather than a set of assessment standards to be applied to a programme. Immediately we had the slavish pattern of Year 11 = Level 1, Year 12 = Year 12 and Year 13 = Level 3. Students who could move more quickly were denied an opportunity to do so. While there has been some loosening up this rigidity remains. The gear was geared to retaining students for 13 years despite evidence that this is not bringing benefit to perhaps 60% of students.

That is not the case everywhere. At the MIT Tertiary High School students, from the time they arrive, are able to get credit at all levels with an outcome that sees them “getting level x, y and z” as something that happens when they get there rather than at the end of a year. The stages emerge as they accrue the assessments within the programmes they study.

Again, nostalgia seems to rule NCEA.  In fairness this might also have been encouraged by the manner of its introduction. The current Hon Speaker of the House, Min of Ed at the time, determined that the three year set of qualifications would be introduced incrementally avoiding some significant disruption to the schools.

But disruptive change is not a bad thing. There is evidence that effective change requires some degree of disruption and without it the status quo often wins. That is reflected in the persistent theme in the USA of “so much reform, so little change” (c.f. Charles Payne).  It’s is also why the statistics are stubbornly refusing to budge despite the successive wave of reform. As one commentator lamented: “it’s not what reforms do to education  – it’s what education does to reforms!”

The relatively low number of students gaining a Vocational Pathway designation highlights the extent to which it is not being used as a curriculum organizer. Students are not getting on to pathways that take them beyond secondary school and into employment.

Imagine if that longstanding example of standards-based assessment, the New Zealand Drivers Licence, was to be conducted in the tradition of the norm-referenced examination system that NCEA replaced.

  • All of the prospective drivers would turn up at the testing station at  the same time on the same day.
  • As the group was too large to cope with a test involving driving a car they would settle down to answer a written test about the practical elements of driving.
  • They would complete a multi-choice test on the rules.
  • They would of course have been told not what specific knowledge and skills were to be tested on but rather given a huge amount information some of which was important for the test.

More importantly half of the students would fail regardless of the level of their knowledge. Before you rush to say that would be a good thing remember that half would also pass regardless of the level of their knowledge. All we would not have any clear evidence for any of the students of what they can do or perhaps cannot do when they sit behind the steering wheel and start the engine.

NCEA is a mechanism whereby students and their parents and caregivers can steer their way onto productive pathways. It is time that students and their parents/caregivers were put into the drivers seat.


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    My question is simple – why are students placed in classes (Levels 1, 2, or 3) based on age rather than ability? There is no chance for a smart Level 1 student (or younger) to do Level 2 or 3 assessments. The system is totally inflexible. The student serves the system, whereas the system should serve the student.

    • Stuart Middleton Stuart Middleton

      You are absolutely right – there has never been any impediment to students doing this other than the fixed view of administrators and teachers that Year 11 should be Level 1, Year 12 should be level 2 etc. The point you make are very valid and in programmes I am associated the practice is just not practised – students create their own speed.

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