Hat’s Off to the Minister

Well done, Minister! The simplicity of your concession to NCEA students consisting of a distribution of credits made to compensate them for the difficulties of continuing their studies through the lockdowns, is appropriate and measured.

In this the other hero is NCEA itself. The actions taken make the most of the flexibility of this successful system of assessment and reward; students will still receive a balanced programme and exhibit skill and knowledge at appropriate levels. This is what standards-based assessment is designed to do.

Back in the 1990s I was involved in the development of NCEA and a constant and tense discussion focussed on how the students would receive credit. The Unit Standards were planned to operate simply on an Achieved / Not Achieved basis – if you demonstrate the knowledge and skills required by the standard, the student receives the award of the credits.

But this did not satisfy those (a relatively small group) who believed that there are many kinds of demonstrations and many levels and, this was important, some students would not get credit for being better than others.

NZQA sought to appease that group and thought it had by inventing a system of grades to differentiate performance among the group that had demonstrated the requisite knowledge and skill – it required, the conservative group of schools argued, differentiation of success. So NZQA developed the system assigning Achieved / Merit / Excellence with credit differentials. I was there, in the room, when the official revealed his plan to smiles from one side of the argument and puzzled frowns from the other. The smiling group had got what they wanted, a system of assigning results in a way that seemed to replicate the norm-referenced outcomes of the examination system that the frowning group had sought to replace.

Standards-based assessment does not require differentiation beyond that of Achieved /Not Achieved. Minister Hipkins realised this in his plan to adjust credits and to use them to recognise those who had completed the work and to distribute some in a way that seemed fair.

I have been a Chief Examiner of a few old-style national examinations way back, usually national senior school examinations. Issues sometimes cropped up and situations developed that seemed to be a set-back not of the students’ making such as the teacher who taught the wrong Shakespeare play in an English exam then went to the evening Post to complain, the marker who lost ten scripts (found a year later down behind the backseat of the family car), and the examiner who forgot to insert an instruction  to Write on ONE of the following topics, none of the moderators picked up on this,and well-intentioned students wrote four essays when only one was required. That kind of thing. The emphasis was on what to do then that is fair to the students. Old fashioned common sense prevailed just as it has with the actions of Minister Hipkins. It might not seem to be the solution that wins over those who think they know better, but it is the right decision to those who do.

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