Arriving back at the beginning not knowing where we have been!

Stuart Middleton

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started 
And know the place for the first time.”

                               (T S Eliot  “Little Gidding”)

The direction in which the discussion about NCEA has drifted is most disappointing. Instead of engaging in key issues of Educational Achievement it has got bogged down in a nostalgic dragging up of all the old features of the examination system that was replaced by NCEA, the issues that finally brought the examinations system down and an attempt to re-engineer them fit into a new reconstruction of the assessment of student achievement.

We see this in a quest for large blocks of credits (something already able to be done), in the need to squeeze credits into recognisable conventional subjects, in the innocently raise questions about statistical modification. (Do people not recall the “dirty little secrets” of scaling, of group mean referencing, of the mindless application of the Bell Curve to mark distribution, which finally led to enough calls for change, that change came?)

With the increased proportion of the youth population staying at secondary school longer we needed a system that could reflect a much greater range of achievements than a stack of conventional examinations of conventional subjects.  Do you remember the rites of passage around celebrating reaching 15years of age by leaving school – and often on the actual birthday? We badly needed a system that could reflect achievement across a far wider range of achievement than ever the examinations could manage? The enlarged cohorts of students being retained in secondary schools demanded and enlarged set of curriculum pathways.

Furthermore, the shift to a standards-based assessment regime meant that a student had to demonstrate the learning of specific skills and knowledge, and would actually receive the credit as they achieved it, rather than simple get the blessing of an exam mark generated by a distribution and shifted around through group means referencing.

It should not be forgotten that change to the secondary school external assessment system gained momentum after the ruling of the Human Rights Commission that students had a right to have their marked exam scripts returned to them. The cover was blown.

Perhaps expectations were too extensive, perhaps people were looking to a new assessment system to solve the issues of NEETs – it helps but is no solution. Perhaps they thought the growing youth unemployment would slow down – it hasn’t. We still search for new ways of working – there is irony in the fact that we ignore new way that emerge!

NCEA is only what it sets out to be – a system for assessing demonstrated learning and achieved outcomes. And in that respect it works. But it is a qualification only in as much it is based on a record of learning, a record of outcomes at the lowest levels of the journey to become a qualified in a career which will help lead towards employment and the benefit that it brings.

No-one is going to base a career only on NCEA but they will need NCEA as their record of achievement at a general levels in those starting early stages, and those foundations for careers will increasingly be based within a set of career skills in applied, practical fields of learning.

The process of starting those journeys requires (‘demands’ is not too strong a word) the availability of learning that can attempted in small chunks with rapid rewards. So much of the latest discussion underlines the sad truth that NCEA is either misunderstood or wilfully misrepresented. After all these years too many simply arrive at the point of understanding from where we started out on the journey seeming to not understand it even for the first time let alone bring to it improvements that one could expect from a review. The discussions have been a muddle.

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