Tougher entry to universities opens ranking can of worms

The application of free market principles to tertiary education in New Zealand has died with a whimper.

Since the 1990s tertiary institutions have competed with each other for "customers". Their funding was based on the number of students they attracted. This led to a proliferation of dodgy degrees and dubious diplomas as various institutions competed to attract students and funding.

In the past few years, this funding formula has changed. Student numbers and funding at various tertiary institutions has been capped. The recent announcement universities will be tightening entry requirements for courses is a result of this change. Quality, rather than quantity, is now the driver of admissions.

Here lies a peculiar problem relating to assessment in our schools. Assessment under NCEA is standards-based. Student attainment is measured against objective standards rather than against each other.

The change in the funding model for tertiary institutions means universities are now left to cobble together some way of ranking students against each other.

Comparability of results between students under NCEA is set to become a major issue, as students compete for limited places in tertiary courses.

For those of us who teach NCEA, it is obvious there are major anomalies in the results generated under this system. The pass rates for work marked internally are usually much higher than for external assessments, usually done under exam conditions. There are also significant discrepancies in pass rates for different subjects and for different units within a subject.

It is ridiculous to try to equate a unit of knowledge in physics with a unit of knowledge in economics or graphics, in terms of difficulty. Yet the results this system generates are going to become very important in determining whether a student gains entry to a tertiary course.

The qualifications authority, NZQA, has tried to fix this problem of comparability of results between and within subjects by marking to profiles. What this means is there is a certain proportion of pupils who are expected to achieve at each level in a subject.

The marking of exams is adjusted to ensure these rough profiles are met. This is to ensure pupils don't end up with the impression it is harder to pass economics than physics.

To compound the problem of how to rank pupils for admission to tertiary courses, there is a move for more assessments to be marked internally, i.e. within schools, rather than by external markers. This appears to be a move by NZQA to reduce the huge expense involved in marking and administering NCEA in trying to get some semblance of comparability of results.

Universities will need to consider if internally marked results will have the same credibility as those marked externally.

Here's a simple illustration of the problem faced by a university admissions officer. Two prospective students apply for entry to a degree. One candidate has 2 excellences, 2 merits, 10 achieved and 6 not achieved in his final results. The other pupil has 3 merits and 17 achieved in her results. Who is the superior candidate?

Universities are left with a dubious task of trying to come up with an overall mark for each candidate. As a means of comparing academic ability this system would be laughable if the stakes weren't so high. They are about to become higher.

The original intention of NCEA and standards-based assessment was noble but philosophically flawed. The first flaw was that there are few absolute truths (if any) in knowledge. Teachers have tied themselves in knots chasing the perfect answer all will agree on for each question in each subject area.

The second philosophical flaw is the lack of comparability between and within subjects. It is not possible to rank knowledge in physics against knowledge in economics on an objective scale of difficulty.

The third philosophical flaw is that the human condition is both competitive and co-operative. Educationalists are naive to deny a hidden agenda of any education system is to act as a sorting device for society. A key function of an assessment system is to display the outcome of this sorting process.

• Peter Lyons teaches economics at Saint Peters College in Epsom and has authored several economics texts.


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