Only days after the Labour-led coalition assumed power last October, Education Minister Chris Hipkins signalled a review of New Zealand’s national qualification for secondary schools, the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA). Hipkins had concerns about the system, he said, particularly how it was used to drive learning rather than assess achievement.

“There is a general feeling amongst teachers of the culture around NCEA being that the only learning is the learning that contributes towards credits. That is not a culture that I want to see continued.”

Indeed, the Post Primary Teachers’ Association/Te Wehengarua (PPTA), states that “the pendulum in the senior secondary school has gone too far towards assessment, at the expense of curriculum. In fact, when teachers talk about their courses, they often don’t discuss the curriculum that underpins their courses but talk instead about which standards they are going to ‘teach’ as if a standard, of itself, constitutes the curriculum”.

The PPTA says that government decisions that have interfered with the initial design of NCEA are partially to blame. “The worst of these was the government decision in 2012 to set a target of 85 per cent of 18-year-olds achieving NCEA Level 2 or an equivalent qualification by the end of 2017. This exacerbated an existing trend towards schools focusing on credits achieved rather than high-quality learning.

“There have been efforts to encourage schools to reduce the number of credits assessed in their courses, but, on average, students are still assessed each year for twice as many credits as they need to achieve the qualification.”

The PPTA says that one of the design solutions that the review might canvas is reducing the number of credits required for one or more of the certificates, such as reducing Level 1 to 40, and Levels 2 and 3 to 60 each.

Doing this, it says, would make Level 1 more achievable for the small proportion of students for whom it is the highest level they can expect to reach, but at the same time significantly reduce the amount of assessment done in Year 11 in those schools that continue to offer level one to all students.

“It is important to remember that no school is required to offer all levels of NCEA, and there are already some schools not doing qualifications assessment in Year 11. This is courageous, especially if other schools in the area are assessing at Year 11, but it can have very positive implications for student engagement and for teacher assessment loads.

“It is time to ask whether all three certificates are still needed, given the emphasis being placed on achievement of Level 2. The review must, if nothing else, produce solutions to reduce the excessive assessment at the expense of learning that is endemic in our secondary schools. It is not only having a negative impact on teachers’ wellbeing, it is also having a negative impact on students’ wellbeing.”

PISA, the Programme for International Student Assessment, focuses on the academic and social performance of high school students around the world. The academic assessments focus on the core school subjects of reading, mathematics and science, and consider the extent to which 15-year-old students, near the end of their compulsory education, have acquired “key knowledge and skills that are essential for full participation in modern societies”.

Approximately 540,000 students completed the PISA assessment in 2015, representing about 29 million 15-year-olds in the schools of the 72 participating countries and economies.

Singapore, Japan and Estonia, respectively, topped the tables across the curriculum, followed by Chinese Taipei and Finland. New Zealand came in at 12th place, ahead of Australia (13), the UK (14) and the US (25).

This raises the question of what it is that the top-performing five countries are doing differently from the other 67. Is it to do with the national psyche? The number of dollars spent on education? Or could it be that the testing methods used affect the quality of learning rather than merely assess achievement?

Interestingly, the top-performing countries use vastly different qualification systems, ranging from a very hands-off approach in Finland (only one mandatory test at age 16) to the opposite in Singapore, where children are tested rigorously, even in primary school.

Finland

Finland routinely tops rankings of global education systems and is famous for having no banding systems – all pupils, regardless of ability, are taught in the same classes. Finnish schools also give relatively little homework and have only one mandatory test at age 16.

In the most recent PISA survey (2015), Finland came in at fifth place on a table of 72, yet the country places little emphasis on tables and comparison charts. Somewhat tellingly, Finnish secondary students record high levels of achievement across the curriculum, low levels of schoolwork-related anxiety, and a high sense of life satisfaction.

Ninety-three per cent of Finns graduate from academic or vocational high schools, 17.5 percentage points higher than the United States, and 66 per cent go on to higher education – the highest rate in the European Union.

In Finland, the compulsory comprehensive school is the basis of the whole school system. The comprehensive school provides general education for the whole age group and it is intended for children from 7 to 16 years of age.

After the comprehensive school, at 16, 90 percent of pupils transfer to the upper secondary level of education, choosing either an upper secondary – about 60 percent – or a vocational school (40 per cent).

The upper secondary school provides an average of three years’ education to pupils aged 16 to 19 and leads to the national matriculation examination. This is set and assessed nationally twice a year countrywide by a committee appointed by the Ministry of Education. This was originally the entrance examination to the University of Helsinki, and its prestige survives to this day.

The system, however, is not rigid and vocational school graduates may formally qualify for a university of applied sciences or, in some cases, university education; conversely, academic secondary school graduates may enrol in vocational education programs. It is also possible to attend both vocational and academic secondary schools at the same time.

Australia

In Australia, where public schooling was once a source of national pride, the education system is taking a battering from critics who say it has “failed a generation of school children”.  Student outcomes for science, maths and reading have been in decline for the past 18 years, prompting calls for a system overhaul.

A recent review, chaired by businessman David Gonski and released in April, pulled no punches, concluding that Australia’s industrial model of school education is detrimental to individual student outcomes because it focuses on trying to ensure that millions of students attain specified learning outcomes for their grade and age before moving them in lock-step to the next year of schooling.

In echoes of criticism levelled at New Zealand’s NCEA, New South Wales Education Minister Rob Stokes said Australia’s current regime is “limited by its focus on achievement rather than growth”.

The most recent PISA recorded student outcomes in Australia to be above the OECD average, but in steady decline since 2006.

The Australian Qualifications Framework (AQF) has 10 levels, linking school, vocational and university education qualifications into one national system. Levels 1 to 5 are available in high schools, and 5 to 10 in tertiary settings.

Singapore

Whatever their systems, Singapore schools are doing a lot right. They topped the table of 72 OECD countries, and more than 25 percent of students in Singapore are judged to be top-performing mathematicians.

Testing is a big part of the education framework. In competitive Singapore, testing is used at primary level to determine students’ access to high school, with secondary places awarded in either the Express, Normal (Academic) or Normal (Technical) course. Once in high school, students typically follow a four-year path to the GCE ‘N’ Level qualification and, for those who perform well, a further year to sit the GCE ‘O’ Level. However, students in the Express programme are fast-tracked through a four-year course leading to the GCE ‘O’ Level examination.

However, critics of Singapore’s system say that its educational success comes at a high price, with children experiencing high stress levels from primary school as a result of pressure to perform. They also question whether the high level of perfect scores reflect quality education or rote learning.

Indeed, in the World Happiness Report 2016, Singapore, where students receive a significant amount of homework, ranked 25th compared with Finland’s fifth place, where homework is not part of the education system. New Zealand sits at eighth place and Australia at ninth.

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