Of all the reforms currently underway for New Zealand’s education sector, the review of our national secondary school qualification system arguably has the most at stake. As proposals are discussed and consultation gains momentum, the enormity of what is involved becomes clear. After all, we’re essentially tinkering with the tickets to nearly every young New Zealander’s future – a real sense of ‘we need to get this right’ has started to emerge.

Yet, getting it right is easier said than done. The review is taking place against an ever-changing backdrop; that of the rapidly changing expectations of industry and the workplace, an increasingly diverse society, and evolving and conflicting ideas about what constitutes learner capability and achievement.

Stepping stones to the NCEA review

The National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) was introduced between 2002 and 2004. NCEA provided welcome respite from a system that focused on passing and failing a set percentage of students every year – School Certificate, Sixth Form Certificate and Bursary. Under NCEA, any learner who can show that they have met the standard will succeed.

However, NCEA has not been without its challenges. While achievement standards introduced flexibility for learners, consistent assessment across all schools was problematic. From the outset, there were fears that schools would use internal assessment as an opportunity to enhance their students’ results and some earlier analysis of NCEA results shows gaps between the achievement levels of internal and external assessment, particularly for lower decile schools. However, a number of independent reviews have since supported the integrity of NCEA assessment and moderation is now thought to be generally tight.

More recently, concerns around NCEA have shifted to fears of inequity within the system and the large amount of assessment required. The focus on assessment and the subsequent level of workload, for both students and staff, were key factors driving the need to review the NCEA system, some 16 years after it was introduced. And in any case, a review of NCEA was required under policy regulations anyway.

So in January this year Education Minister Chris Hipkins appointed a seven‑member Ministerial Advisory Group to look at how to strengthen the qualification. They resurfaced five months later, with six ‘big opportunities’ for reimagining NCEA.  These provided the basis for the subsequent public consultation currently underway.

Some of the opportunities are bigger than others. The group proposes to make NCEA more accessible for students and their families by removing the annual NCEA fee and Scholarship entry fees, making Special Assessment Conditions (SAC) more accessible and improving access to curriculum resources. It also suggests changes to resourcing and support, moderation, quality assurance, and accountability to enable teachers “to design and deliver a range of high-quality, coherent courses drawn from across the curriculum”.

But the game-changing suggestions hinge on broadening the scope of NCEA and radically changing Level 1.

Rethinking NCEA Level 1

Currently, students need 80 credits to achieve at Level 1, but the group suggests changing this to a 40-credit qualification with two parts – literacy and numeracy, and a project. There is also the suggestion of letting go of Level 1 altogether. The rationale behind the proposal is that the assessment workload is currently too high for many schools. The group argues the focus should be shifted to developing the knowledge, skills, and attitudes needed to be successful beyond school.

“We’ve heard that some schools have already created space for learning by reducing, redesigning, or removing NCEA Level 1. People say that this is working well for students,” states the group.

Year 13 student Sarah Bisacre-Peters thinks Level 1 needs to change.

“I deem Level 1 a relatively useless year that provides little to no long-lasting practical skills.

The changes to Level 1 would benefit students by giving them some insight and experience into options after school. The workforce is where we are supposed to end up, but there is currently such little support to get us there.”

However, some are sceptical of what is being proposed. Massey High School principal Glen Denham is concerned by the lack of evidence supporting such major changes and the lack of input from secondary school teachers and principals.

“Where is the evidence that this will work? Where is the trial at schools that have been running this and what is the success?”

Denham believes we should retain assessment at Level 1.

“I think it’s imperative that kids sit exams at Year 11. We are underestimating the resilience of our Year 11 students. Kids want to know how they have gone at Level 1.”

Part of the Level 1 change includes a review of the literacy and numeracy requirements so that they are based on the progress students are expected to make before NCEA and also reflect the capabilities students need for later life.

“We have heard that the current literacy and numeracy requirements and the ways they are assessed can be difficult to understand,” states the advisory group, “Sometimes young people who have met the standard still struggle after they have left school.”

Will projects transform learning or add to workload concerns?

While most support the moves to strengthen literacy and numeracy requirements, the proposed introduction of compulsory projects, is more contentious. The projects would be student-directed and draw on multiple areas of the curriculum.

Former Manurewa High School principal Salvatore Gargiulo is excited by the possibility of projects being included in NCEA.

“This concept is part of the excellent IB [International Baccalaureate] curriculum. The opportunity for students to incorporate their leanings in a topic of their own selection can produce some incredible outcomes.”

However, others are not so sure.

Dr Michael Johnston from the Victoria University of Wellington says that while there is a place for project-based learning, 20 credits is an “awfully large chunk”.

“At the very least I’d like to see it optional,” he says.

“It’s naïve to think it will all be up to the students – I just don’t think it will; it will be up to what the school can manage, to what the school can gear itself toward doing.

“A 20 credit project which is compulsory is going to be a big deal for schools. There are issues of manageability and assessment reliability – how on earth are they going to engineer the assessment of upwards of 100,000 projects a year?”

AUT’s Academic Director Dr Ineke Kranenburg also has reservations about students constructing their own curriculum.

“How are students able to do this at that age so that it doesn’t disadvantage them?” she asks.

She supports project-based learning, but has concerns about the implications for student and staff workload.

“I think the issue that probably hasn’t been worked through is that there is actually a huge workload associated with individualised learning.”

Denham agrees the projects are likely to add to the workload rather than reduce it as intended.

“Teachers have enough to do rather than gathering a maths teacher, a fabrics teacher and a Social Science teacher to come up with a ‘made up project’,” he says.

Johnston says the projects might have the unintended consequence of undermining the learning of disciplinary knowledge.

“I wouldn’t like to see us move towards a system where knowledge is marginalised. I don’t think it would be good for people to leave school without some grounding in disciplinary knowledge.

“To master a discipline takes years of practice and training, so we question the extent to which 15-, 16- and 17-year-olds are ready to go out and apply disciplinary knowledge.”

Johnston is wary of too much curriculum integration.

“There is a place for it. But I think it is better to learn the disciplines properly first before you start mixing them up otherwise you run the risk of confusion and a lack of clarity about what’s what.”

Broadening the scope or narrowing students’ options?

The Ministerial Advisory Group also identified the need for NCEA, particularly at Levels 2 and 3, to acknowledge learning beyond the classroom, whether through self-directed projects, extracurricular activities, community work, or employment. This would be reflected in a student’s Record of Achievement in addition to NCEA results to present a fuller picture of what a student has learned and achieved.

“We’ve heard that some employers and tertiary providers rely on the Record of Achievement for information about a young person’s skills and abilities. But some employers don’t find it so helpful, and tertiary providers often use other records and measures to make decisions on course entry,” states the group.

As such, they propose that NCEA Level 2 and 3 could potentially include credits from a ‘pathways opportunity’, such as a research or community project, progress towards an out-of-school qualification, industry training or a work placement.

The Industry Training Federation (ITF) is encouraged by this proposal, and strongly supports transforming the Record of Achievement.

“This is the main tool we give our young people to walk into the world, after their years of schooling. It needs to communicate strengths, skills, experiences and dispositions – so students can reap the benefits of their education,” says ITF chief executive Josh Williams.

However, Johnston is concerned at the level of emphasis that could be placed on aspects like community projects and civic engagement.

“There’s nothing wrong with those things, but a quarter of the credits for the qualification is an awfully large number of eggs to put in that basket.”

But Williams believes every student should have this opportunity.

“All students benefit from exposure to workplaces before they leave school, irrespective of academic ability and their next step beyond school,” he says.

“Pathways opportunities will forge stronger connections between schools and their local communities, develop employability, and improve careers advice.”

Johnston worries, however, that such an approach will play out badly for equality of opportunity across the socioeconomic spectrum.

“Why? Because in a high decile school, the community will put pressure on the school to maintain the university track, whereas at lower deciles that may not be the case. And without disparaging vocational connections I don’t want to see young people’s opportunities closed off too soon by assumptions being made too soon about what they’re able to do.”

Ineke Kranenburg supports efforts to broaden the scope of NCEA, but shares some of Johnston’s concerns.

“We do need to accommodate different learning environments but I think we risk profiling students too early. We need to be mindful that students aren’t limiting their options,” she says.

Johnston is keen to avoid a two-tiered system.

“There’s another danger here in that if they put in place a level 3 qualification that universities find they can’t use as the basis for university entrance then that will promote the possibility of alternative qualifications being used for that purpose, which would not play out well for NCEA,” he says.

“NCEA has its flaws for sure, but to date it’s done a pretty good job of being a broad church, being able to accommodate the interests of students across the spectrum.”

What’s missing from the Big Six?

Post-Primary Teachers’ Association (PPTA) president Jack Boyle says problems with equity appear largely absent in the six big opportunities.

“We know that there are significant equity issues in the NCEA, particularly in terms of the content of different groups’ of students certificates, with Māori and Pasifika students more likely to gain NCEA on the strength of disparate standards that do not constitute clear pathways to further qualifications.

“This is likely to be a large part of the explanation as to why Level 2 achievement rose steadily during the term of the last government, but Level 4 achievement remained static.  There is nothing in these proposals that appears to address this inequity.”

Boyle points to coverage of the curriculum as another area neglected in the group’s proposals.

“We also know that NCEA has been criticised as leading to increased levels of ‘teaching to the test’, which tertiary institutions and employers raise as affecting their confidence in the qualification.

“It has been argued that the push for ‘transparency’ of students’ achievement that underpinned some of the pressure for the shift to standards-based has resulted in a system where students have learned to do only as little as they need to do to gain specific standards, rather than to learn broadly across the curriculum.

“It is hoped that this question may be grappled with throughout the consultation process as it is not really addressed in the six ‘big opportunities’.”

Consultation – flawed or fair?

The PPTA has raised some concerns about the consultation process – and they are not the only ones. The NCEA review process has come under fire in recent weeks.

“It is our view that the consultation process is perhaps paying too much attention to involving a vast array of people in the Review process, when actually the process should be limited to those who have in-depth understanding of the qualification and focus on addressing technical issues that have arisen, including identifying these through careful data analysis,” says PPTA president Jack Boyle.

“Despite that, at the early stage, having lots of different people involved can bring in some useful ideas, but as the process gets into the technical phase, we think that’s where teachers experience should come to the fore.”

Boyle is correct about the “vast array of people”. There’s an online survey, or those who want to make a more detailed submission can participate in workshops, focus groups, hui, fono, complete a longer survey or make written submissions. There’s also the Make your Mark competition for secondary school students. The outcomes of all this will inform the final recommendations that  Hipkins will take to Cabinet in February 2019 for how NCEA could be updated.

However, Glen Denham believes the speed of consultation is inappropriate, given the enormity of the task at hand.

“We can do it quickly or we can do it right. Currently we haven’t been given the resources to do the consultation well. We spent $26 million and a lengthy consultation process on deciding if we need a new flag and the NCEA proposal has been done on a shoe string, yet will affect 50,000 teachers and over time 500,000 students!”

Like Boyle, Denham thinks more in-depth analysis is required.

“I believe that we need more depth and less breadth. We need to study things deeply.”

Denham was one of 40 secondary school principals to put their names to a newspaper advertisement campaign protesting that the review process had not adequately consulted the secondary school sector. The group expressed concern that the Ministerial Advisory Panel was not representative of secondary school principals and teachers.

“Secondary schools are the prime deliverers of NCEA and we should have been gathered to consult as a group,” says Denham.

However, Josh Williams disagrees.

“By my observation, principals do not appear to be excluded from the review process. However they are not the only voice that matters, just as NCEA recognises there is more than one kind of achievement that matters.”

Even so, the Education Minister has responded to the criticism by extending the consultation period from September 16 until October 19 and promising to set up an advisory group of teachers and principals – in addition to the ministerial advisory group – to help advise him on outcomes from the review process.

This doesn’t solve matters for universities who are also on the periphery of the process. There is nobody representing universities on the ministerial advisory group either.

“While it is great that there is a genuine and extensive consultation I am frustrated that the significant influence that universities have on NCEA is not part of the scope,” says Salvatore Gargiulo.

Whether Hipkins’ moves to appease the principals will be successful or not, the review process will continue, consultation will close, and we will begin to see NCEA morph into something new and different. In many ways, the hard work is yet to come – moving out of the conceptual phase and working out the detail of the proposals on the table.

As AUT’s Ineke Kranenburg says, “It is good to stand back and look at a qualification. Trying to accommodate diversity at levels 1, 2 and 3 is something that needs to be looked at. I think strengthening literacy and numeracy is good. I think ensuring strong connections beyond schooling is good. But I think the devil’s always in the detail.”

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