A qualified achievement

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

New Zealand’s NCEA high school assessment framework has been labelled obsessive and harmful. What needs to change? And what can parents do to protect their children right now? Parent and journalist Bruce Munro takes a look.

I admit it. I did not pay enough attention. By the time your third child is making his way through secondary education, parents have heard it all.

One more plaintive cry that education is boring and school unappetising is apt to be flicked off with "knuckle down'' and "suck it up''.

I should, however, have noted that although idealists are prone to rail against imperfection wherever they find it, the scorn and venom he heaped upon the teachers, the school and particularly the NCEA system, he and they operated under, was unrelenting, for more than two years.

But it was not until the second half of last year, when what had been the odd soloist publicly criticising NCEA was now becoming a choir, that I took a closer look.

I found he had written "yet another pointless assessment'', this one for English, in which he laid out his views in vivid, unambiguous prose.

"Our trusty old NZQA is stabbing us in the back ... Their evil qualification, NCEA, doesn't really account for the people out there who dislike bland assessments,'' he wrote.

"Its answer is always the same: I heard you enjoy learning about the physical world, would you like to do an exam on mechanics? You enjoy problem-solving? Well, you should do a test on differentiation.

"Absolutely everything adds up to some useless way of grading it - a stressful climax that amounts to a handful of good-for-nothing credits. What an exciting system.

"This ... has sucked every last piece of enthusiasm for school out of my body.

"Where's the passion? The crazy spontaneity? The drive to follow you dreams? That's right, it's nowhere. Every day the same as the other, a constant drudgery ... With a subject line-up that's very close to killing the last pieces of creativity inside of me.''

He was, it is now clear, on to something.

The overt critiques of NCEA have become a torrent. The Government has ordered that a review take place this year.

But many parents who have sent their teenagers back to the classroom this week are unclear what the problem is with NCEA, how concerned they should be about it, and what, if anything, they should do.

Prof Welby Ings, of AUT, says New Zealand’s education system has become obsessed with assessment...
Prof Welby Ings, of AUT, says New Zealand’s education system has become obsessed with assessment and tick-box reporting. PHOTO: SUPPLIED

Welby Ings has no doubt. The professor in design at Auckland University of Technology, who could neither read nor write until he was 15, was, in 2001, awarded the inaugural Prime Minister's Supreme Award for Teaching Excellence.

Prof Ings wrote Disobedient Teaching, published late last year by Otago University Press, which summarises and tells stories from 15 years of his outspoken criticism of New Zealand's education system. An education system that he says was once a global leader but has become "obsessed with assessment and tickbox reporting''.

NCEA is the assessment framework that has been used in New Zealand secondary schools for the past 15 years. When introduced, it added myriad internal assessments to end-of-year external exams.

Theoretically, whether a pupil gets excellence, merit, achieved or not achieved on any assessment or exam, they are being assessed against a standard rather than against each other. In theory.

In practice, it is an endless parade of results that can be, and are, used to compare pupils with pupils and schools with other schools.

The problem, Prof Ings says, is that the roots of NCEA are not in a concern for learning but in a "micro-managed regime of accountability''.

The consequences are marked and dire, he says.

"There is a very heightened level of anxiety among university students around performance. With that comes a toxic misconception around what an intelligent person is.''

NCEA tends to teach young people that "agenda reading and being articulate'' is intelligence, which is not true.

In his experience, those who do well at high school can start crashing in their second year of university.

"They have often come through as the golden and lauded children of the assessment regime.

"But they don't survive well at university or in the workforce because they have difficulty generating original thought and are very averse to taking risks.''

They have been trained to read the education system's agenda and requirements rather than push their own thinking.

And pushing thinking beyond formula is the key to gaining knowledge.

How much of the blame for escalating levels of anxiety can be laid at the feet of NCEA is difficult to say, Prof Ings admits.

"But there is a correlation chronologically between the rise of anxiety around performance and the introduction of this system of hyper-assessment.''

Echoing my son, Prof Ings says NCEA can undermine the love of learning.

"The reward that was in the love of learning itself has been shifted to performance in a test,'' Prof Ings says.

Today, high school pupils want to know above all else, is it in the test?

"That's their criteria for assessing its value.''

The love of learning should be fundamental to education, he says.

"It is a gift for life. If [the education system] has only given them a love of performing well in tests, that stops when they leave school.''

These and other concerns, coming from various quarters, seem to be getting noticed in the right places.

Education Minister Chris Hipkins says pupils and teachers have been  telling him NCEA over...
Education Minister Chris Hipkins says pupils and teachers have been telling him NCEA over-assessment is harming their well-being. PHOTO: ODT FILES

Prof Ings, it appears, has the support, if not the ear, of the man overseeing the NCEA review, Minister of Education, Chris Hipkins.

Prof Ings knows Mr Hipkins' mother and rates her as an outstanding thinker.

Her son is among those who gave a written endorsement for Disobedient Teaching.

"A refreshing take on the measurement/data/labelling obsession,'' the then-Labour spokesman for education wrote.

Since announcing that the new government would carry-out the scheduled review of NCEA, Mr Hipkins has said that pupils and teachers are saying over-assessment is a harmful weight on their shoulders.

Back in 2003, when NCEA was being introduced, Mr Hipkins was an adviser to then-Minister of Education, Trevor Mallard. But he is at pains to point out that the blue-print for NCEA came from the previous Jenny Shipley-led National government and that Labour delayed its implementation by a year.

"I don't think NCEA was a mistake,'' Mr Hipkins says.

"I think it was absolutely the right thing to do. But if we knew then what we know now, we would have done things differently.''

The way schools' behaviour changed in response to NCEA had not been anticipated and now needs to be addressed, he says.

The NCEA review advisory group was announced this week. It will produce a discussion paper, with the aim of consulting and reporting back to Mr Hipkins by the end of the year.

Asked how long it will take to carry out changes recommended by the review, Mr Hipkins said that would depend what the changes were. But, he added, schools do not need to wait.

"Tackling this issue of over-assessment is something they can start working on now.

"When you look at the list of credits kids are getting, they are often getting far more credits than they need to achieve NCEA. So, schools can already start to reduce the assessment burden.''

It is an opinion wholeheartedly endorsed by Logan Park High School co-principal Kristan Mouat.

Ms Mouat says there are important changes she hopes will come from the review. At the same time, however, she says NCEA is already an excellent tool - if it is used as intended.

But not many schools are doing that, she warns.

Ms Mouat says the review needs to look at teachers' workloads, concerns about inconsistent marking of assessments and issues with some external exams (such as November's NCEA level 1 maths exam that was described as "unnecessarily tough'' and "cruel'').

"NCEA is a big improvement on the old system and provides a great opportunity to be innovative and encourage creativity and real learning,'' she says.

"It's already in there. But very few schools are exploring it.''

It all comes down to how individual schools approach assessment.

"Schools don't have to be assessment-driven,'' Ms Mouat says.

"Your son could take his impassioned English essay and expand that to make up a documentary for media studies.

"It's about transferable skills. It's about saying, this pupil can write well and speak well and we can collect all the evidence [from a variety of sources].

"But this sort of collaboration requires a lot more work from teachers. It's much easier to stay in your silo.

"Schools tend to operate subjects as discrete silos rather than focusing on the whole person.''

The government review needs to give teachers more professional development and more time, Ms Mouat says.

She is confident the review will result in real change.

"I think it will affirm all those things. I think it will say, let's get away from being paranoid about moderation and compliance and box-ticking and let's get back to the aspiration and the potential of NCEA.''

Prof Ings senses similar sentiments among teachers nationwide.

"There's a very high level of optimism in the profession at the moment.

"I know that puts a lot of pressure on the Government, but ... it seems to me that New Zealand could lead the way here to show what post-neoliberal education could look like.

"We've certainly got people now in Parliament who are thinking beyond the neoliberal matrix. They seem to be asking really good questions; talking to and asking questions of teachers.''

Kristan Mouat, LPHS co-principal, says NCEA already allows for innovative learning and flexible  assessment but is not used like that  in many schools. PHOTO: ODT FILES
Kristan Mouat, LPHS co-principal, says NCEA already allows for innovative learning and flexible assessment but is not used like that in many schools. PHOTO: ODT FILES

What Prof Ings is looking for from the NCEA review is far less comparative assessment, an increased focus on independent inquiry, a reconfiguring of school subjects ("Disciplines like geography and history don't work anymore'') and ways to produce and retain excellent educators.

"We've had an exodus of teachers who are probably the very teachers we needed in there. There are other teachers in there who are great teachers but they have been rewarded for something else.''

This change will take time and needs to be built on the right values, he says.

"There's not going to be a revolution on Thursday.''

But in five years, parents should be able to look back and see "a significant shift in education in New Zealand''.

Which is great in the long-term. But a bit unfortunate for all the pupils, and their parents, making their way through the secondary education system right now.

Do not despair, Ms Mouat says.

There are things parents can do to protect their teenagers' well-being and help preserve their love of learning, she says.

"Talk to them. Help them manage their stress, to shrink things down and put them in perspective.

"Remind them their worth as a person isn't tied up in single assessments, that it's not possible to be a perfectionist in everything.

"If they are doing a lot of other worthwhile things, sometimes they may not get an excellence, and that's just fine.

"Remind them that NCEA is just a stepping stone. Once you get on to the next thing, in a few years no-one will ask what grades you got in NCEA level 1.

"Encourage them to pursue subjects that interest them.''

This month, my son begins university.

What impact has NCEA had? Has he been defeated by the system? How will he fare?

Near the conclusion of his assessment he wrote:

"NCEA should re-evaluate its methodology, allow for a wider range of subjects and a system where the student drives their learning more than the teacher, where a real sense of excitement is able to build in the student, where every morning they don't have to be depressed by the sight of their blazer.''

I have to admit, I think he'll do just fine.


Mr Ings looks a bit old to have been through the NCEA system himself, but he certainly exhibits one of its most notable features --- arriving at the right conclusion for the wrong reasons!

NCEA is undoubtedly a disaster, but instead of placing the blame where it belongs --- on the social communists who wish to deny the existence of competition and failure --- Mr Ings prefers to attribute it to the bogeyman of all lefties: neo-liberalism (what is 'neo-liberal education', btw?) Exactly how a liberal emphasis on freedom of thought and enquiry would result in the outcomes Mr Ings claims to deplore is never explained --- doing so would, of course, not fit his political narrative.