A Nice Clear Educational Approach

NCEA this week started its external examinations in a collaborative spirit that has been something of a hallmark over the past two years. Students have had various concessions that acknowledge that once again this has been an unusual year – additional credits, extensions to some of the deadlines, adjustment to the external examination timetable and so on. 

It has always been the case that those in charge of the end-of-year students assessment experiences will do in a humane manner – which simply treat the students fairly both in the previous examination system (still practised by a few) and the newer NCEA standards based assessment. There have always been processes and procedures to see that when something goes wrong, students are treated fairly and are not punished especially when the blame for something is not their fault – and things do happen! In the days of external examinations for UE and for Bursary I was called on in my role as Chief Examiner to arbitrate when some event or action would have resulted in a student being treated unfairly. Such interventions usually involved the school, the NZQA people and the Examiners.

It is a little disappointing for some of the reports of this year’s arrangements to be tainted a little in a couple of media stories to imply that the ability to choose the higher mark between that achieved by the student in work completed under unusual Covid conditions and that achieved by sitting an external examination is somehow dodgy. This approach is greatly acceptable in my understanding of standards-based assessment, the goal is to assess whether the student can demonstrate their understanding of requirements of a standard and allowing for multiple attempts to do just that is totally proper.

It mirrors the assessments for a NZ Drivers Licence with its multiple permissible attempts to reach the requisite standard. As a Justice of the Peace, I sit a test that accredits me as a Justice of the Peace that is an “Accredited Justice”. In fact, that test has built into it a process for re-sitting any parts which were not met in the original test. This is good assessment process. 

The finer adjustment made for NCEA, further awarding a level marks performance as passes with “Achieved,” “Merit,”or “Excellence” raises an issue and that is while the names of the levels are clear, the point at which a pass moves, for instance, from “achieved” to “Merit” or from “Merit to “Excellence” difficult to pinpoint. Lets call this the NAME sequence.

The same issue in a different context: A Rugby referee is required to control three movements in order to get a scrum going – bending down, getting grip on the row ahead, and finally, full tilt engagement with the opposing side.  A decade or so ago the mantra for getting a scrum under way was changed “Crouch” “Touch” (pause) “En-gage”. But this still led to scappy scrums especially with scum getting into their business too early. I contend that the root cause was the two-syllable word “en-gage” which was hopeless and sloppy as a command. They changed the commands to “Crouch!” “Bind” and “Set” with its sharp crack of a word to finally get the scrum under way (which seemed to work well for the Irish and the French). The difference between “engage” and “set” is clear.

It is a wonderful truth that in the English Language words are supple and they don’t occupy a sharp point but rather share a continuum with other words – “Not Achieved” moves into “Achieved” moves into “Merit” moves into “Excellence” which completes the cycle. Each word commands a space in meaning which rubs up against and even on to some of the space fits neighbours, above and below. 

There is never going to be pin-point precision with the NAME sequence. Language doesn’t work like that. The solution is perhaps to have a “Not Achieved / “Achieved” rubric – the AA sequence.  “Engage” was inappropriate for scrums – it was change it to “Set”. The NAME sequence is similarly unfit for purpose – change it to Not Achieved/Achieved. This would meet the requirements of the a standards-based assessment regime.

The use of the NAME sequence was introduced to get NCEA accepted by examinations that had 100 points in the sequence and exams were produced that could differentiate between each of the 100 points – I think not!

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