“A year-long project … who is going to mark this behemoth?”

The question struck a chord and raised more than a murmur from the crowd of education professionals when asked at Education Central’s ChalkTalk debate on the NCEA Review last month.

PPTA vice-president Melanie Webber expressed concern that teachers and schools were still funded in an industrial model of education. The current focus on personalised pathways came at the cost of teacher wellbeing, she said.

Industry Training Federation CEO Josh Williams believed there must be some sort of middle-ground solution to providing students with locally contextualised, engaging learning, which didn’t come with the burden of assessing a multitude of individualised year-long projects.

Wellington High School Deputy Principal Karen Spencer says there is no doubt NCEA has resulted in a high level of expectation around assessment.

“I think it’s pretty clear from the review that’s being conducted by Minister Hipkins that the scales may have tipped too far in terms of how much assessment is actually required in order to show that students are actually achieving.”

Many schools around the country have already implemented some of the ideas suggested in the review discussion documents, such as reducing the number of assessments or not offering NCEA Level 1, but what is actually needed is change at a system level, Spencer says.

“The opportunity that called for different learning designs, more connected learning, connected across the community, many schools are doing that anyway and trying to make NCEA work as part of that,” she says.

“If there could be a shift in the way that we moderate work, in terms of having to have tasks signed off by NZQA, if there could be increased support for schools to create their own assessments on the fly when they can see opportunities, that actually might support teachers as well.”

Another suggestion outlined by the review is the idea of an in-depth project. Spencer says this is becoming a popular approach in the education sector, but that setting up comprehensive cross-subject learning can be a complex way for teachers to work.

“I don’t know if it would be increased workload, but you do have to work differently in order to do that well. For some teachers to work in that way would require professional learning, would require them to work in a different way, would require possibly the timetable and organisation of learning to be different, so for teachers to work in a way that is collaborative and to work across subjects could result in an increased workload, but it’s hard to say.”

To truly reduce teacher and student workload, we should be thinking about all of the ways we could restructure the qualification instead of focusing on one, she says.

“Work worth doing”

Spencer was involved in the initial implementation of NCEA and says the aim was to offer an inclusive and flexible learning experience for young people to demonstrate their learning, but that it was perhaps still modelled on older systems of curriculum design.

“Secondary schools still stayed within quite fixed faculty groups and learning areas, so each learning area was developing its own pathway and its own programme which, here we are ten-fifteen years down the track, has resulted in multiple assessments at multiple levels,” she says.

“I think the second reason why we seemed to have found ourselves in this situation is that the system offered a qualification at each level. That was designed I think to try and make learning transparent across Year 11, 12 and 13 but has just resulted in three years of really heavy assessment.”

Although any changes introduced will inevitably lead to some commitment of time, Spencer says there are some investments teachers and schools would be willing to make.

“Schools are actively and frequently talking about learning design and curriculum design and are keen to look at that rather than just looking at the qualification,” she says.

“Undoubtedly it would lead to an increase in workload but I think that’s the kind of thing that teachers would be keen to be involved in.

“To have that time to look with fresh eyes at the programmes they design for senior students, that would be great, that would be work worth doing.”

Student perspective

Candi Alldridge sat NCEA Level 3 last year. Although she does not believe there is a difference in student workload between the three levels of NCEA, the 18-year-old says student workload seems to vary depending on the subject.

“I feel like it can be manageable depending on who you are and what subjects you take. If you take lots of hard subjects, like all the core ones – chemistry, biology, English, maths and all that – it can get quite hard because all the assessments seem to come at once. You sort of have all of these assessments from every class to do all at the same time, I find that can be a bit stressful sometimes,” Alldridge says.

“Some people have exams back to back in a day … I’ve thought if they were more spread out and more relaxed then people would be a bit more confident and do a bit better.

She believes student experience of NCEA could be improved if more assessments involved hands-on learning experiences.

“Something that’s a more fun way of learning that doesn’t really feel like work. I feel like that might get more people wanting to do it and might make it seem less like a big task.”

Alldridge does not see the need for a lower credit threshold, however, she notes the timing and weighting of each assessment has a large impact on students.

“There’s a lot of classes where you just do something really simple and you get credits for it,” she says.

“I know people who didn’t get enough credits but our school gave them an opportunity at the end of the year to do a few different things and they got enough credits by doing that.

“I found that I did do better in the ones that were spread out through the term or whatever because you sort of got time to work on it and learn and figure out what you’re doing and what you’re talking about.”

Ready for change

Recommendations for changes to NCEA will be made to the government early next year. Spencer says the sector is ready for change.

“I do think that over the years the NCEA qualification have resulted in default curriculum programmes at the senior level and it has been a long time since teachers were given the time and the professional learning to sit down and look at their programmes.  To look at the experiences they design first before looking at NCEA,” she says.

“There’s a willingness in schools to do things differently, so long as we get that support from the Ministry, as long as universities come to the party in terms of university entrance, and NZQA as well of course, supporting the way that the qualification is organised.”

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