NCEA is out own - and we can fix it

Year 11 St Hilda's Collegiate School pupils sit their NCEA english examination in 2002. Photo by...
Year 11 St Hilda's Collegiate School pupils sit their NCEA english examination in 2002. Photo by Gerard O'Brien.

Peter Lyons maintains that the fundamental problem with the NCEA is not insurmountable.

This year is the 10th anniversary of the introduction of the NCEA qualification into our schools.

Controversy surrounding this qualification has festered but gradually diminished with time.

Teachers have become accustomed to the increased workload that it requires and some of the anomalies have gradually been ironed out.

This year, the Qualifications Authority appears to be adopting a United States-Iraq approach.

Declare victory and gradually withdraw from the fray.

The problem that the Qualifications Authority (NZQA) has had to deal with over the past decade has been one of resourcing. It has required a huge amount of time and effort in administering NCEA to ensure a degree of consistency of pupil results within and between subjects and schools. The solution that NZQA has come up with is to throw more of the assessment back on individual schools and teachers.

From this year, more pupil work will be marked by their teachers rather than assessed by external exams.

The moderation of these internal assessments will also be reduced.

The nightmare that the Qualification Authority has had to live with over the past decade has been media scrutiny of NCEA.

The qualification requires pupils to sit multiple papers in each subject at each level. Each of these paper must then be marked by different panels. The marking process then has to somehow ensure that pass rates and grades are relatively consistent with other subjects.

It would not be a good look if the national pass rate for geography units was 95% yet for physics it was 25%. Without a system of scaling, which NCEA does not allow, such an outcome could easily occur.

Each year, NZQA has also had to deal with the logistics of hundreds of thousands of exam papers being mailed in all different directions. Over the years this huge logistical exercise has resulted in some pupils getting back someone else's exam paper or papers getting lost or results going astray. The media has gleefully pointed out these errors.

The solution of schools and teachers doing more of the marking for NCEA significantly reduces the logistical issues for NZQA.

Unfortunately, it increases the risk of divergence in standards of marking within and between schools. We are back to the problem of how to ensure that this national qualification is administered with the same validity at Gore High School in comparison to Mt Roskill Grammar.

A further problem arises if the economics teacher is an easier marker than the geography teacher down the corridor.

There is no easy solution because there is no Holy Grail of assessment. Any assessment system has flaws. Some schools have opted for alternative assessment systems such as the Cambridge International Exams.

These have little internal assessment with pupil results largely determined by end of year exams. Each year, pupils sit their Cambridge exams which are then sent off to overseas markers. Their results are then scaled in some magical way and the pupils duly receive a mark.

Pupils do not receive their exams back nor is there any transparency in how their results were scaled. Final results can be hit and miss. One of my oddest days in teaching in New Zealand was listening to a visiting Cambridge examiner telling us how we should be teaching and assessing our pupils. It was a lesson in colonial cringe.

The big advantage of NCEA is that it is ours. Because it is ours we have the means to make it work better. Sadly, over the years any robust debate has been stifled as the battle lines between those for and against have hardened. Meaningful dialogue has been lost in the process.

A national qualification must have the same features as a national currency. It must be recognisable in its value. It must be portable in its use. It must have validity which means it cannot be debased. Here lies the risk of throwing more of the assessment back on individual schools and teachers. Standards of assessment between teachers and schools can vary significantly, particularly when school and teacher performances are judged by their academic results. The dubious assessment practices of Cambridge High School when NCEA was first introduced is an obvious example. This potential problem is a reason why many primary teachers are opposed to national standards at junior levels. Results can be manipulated to suit dubious intentions.

On the 10th anniversary of the introduction of NCEA the problem of validity of assessment has not gone away.

This problem is not insurmountable. It lies in the inability of educators to engage in robust, constructive debate without descending into opposing camps that fail to acknowledge the weaknesses in their stances.

 - Peter Lyons teaches economics at St Peter's College in Epsom and has taught both NCEA and Cambridge courses.




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