My thoughts on the NCEA changes

I deliberately haven’t looked too much at what others have said about the NCEA changes that were announced today; I wanted to get my own thoughts straight first. Of course, that means that by the time you’ve read this I’ll probably have changed my perspective on some things, if only a little. I’m only going to write about the new literacy and numeracy requirements and the increased emphasis on external exams, because those are what I know the most about. I have no way of knowing whether the changes to SAC will have a positive or negative effect on students who need them, for instance. The literacy and exams issues, on the other hand, are ones that I’ve been thinking about for some time, and broadly speaking I think these changes are a step in the right direction.

Literacy & Numeracy Package

The plan here is that students will need to earn a package of 20 externally-assessed literacy and numeracy credits as a prerequisite to any NCEA certificate. This is a big shift from the current approach, where students can meet literacy and numeracy requirements through a very wide range of standards that are considered to require the levels of literacy and numeracy represented by the qualification.

This change is a response to the wide range of literacy levels seen in those who have these qualifications. When your literacy credits can come from so many different kinds of work, it’s not surprising that there’s a wide spread of actual literacy skills represented by the qualification. Only a few of the accepted literacy standards are actually explicitly marked on correct spelling and grammar, for instance. Restricting literacy to a specific set of standards should make the standard of literacy students are expected to develop more uniform across schools, which I think is a good thing. My hope is that it might also cause schools to shift their focus towards improving struggling students’ literacy skills, rather than hunting for alternative ways for them to get the literacy credits they need when students aren’t successful in mainstream pathways (the English achievement standards, for instance).

We’ve been told that the literacy and numeracy standards will be externally assessed (to avoid adding to teacher workload and to further ensure that a uniform standard is set), but not whether they will be exams or a portfolio approach. I wouldn’t be surprised to see NZQA go for a portfolio-based approach here, given (a) the complaints being lobbed at them so far about not being ‘innovative’ enough in their assessment practices, and (b) the claim that these standards will be available to students when they are ready for them, including as young as year seven.

It seems like there’s a good chance a literacy and numeracy portfolio might become a focus of the junior school, perhaps up into year eleven, especially for those schools that opt out of level one. This could be a good thing, making years nine and ten less of an aimless muddle (schools may have clear ideas of what they are trying to achieve in these years, of course, but it’s commonly accepted among most students I’ve talked to that no one does anything much in these years). But it could also narrow the curriculum in the same way National Standards did in primary schools.

This raises the problem of how NZQA plan to assess literacy if it is not connected to any particular discipline. You can’t demonstrate your ability to read and write about something, and background and content knowledge make a huge contribution to comprehension and writing. Students can’t show that they can communicate complex ideas if they haven’t been taught about complex topics. All of this raises the question of exactly where the “common benchmark” for literacy will be set – is it at “can fill in a form without embarrassing yourself”, or “able to write an essay?”

External Exams

Another key change is balancing out internal and external standards in each subject. Most subjects now have a large number of internally-assessed standards, so that it’s possible for students to gain a qualification without sitting a single exam. While this in itself might not be a problem, it does mean that courses can end up crammed with internals, to the point where there’s very little time for any work that doesn’t contribute directly to a summative assessment. There’s almost no time for practice, for learning content, for building skills over time and reaching a new standard by the end of the year. Students end up being assessed on what they can already do, rather than learning new things and being assessed on that new learning. If a student’s not already pretty close to the standard, there’s no time for them to learn – it’s more efficient to find a different standard that they’re already ready for. Saving up 50% of the assessment for a course until the end of the year means that teachers can help students build the knowledge and skills they need over the course of the year. It creates breathing space for courses to spend more time on learning rather than assessment, which ought to improve outcomes for both internal and external assessment.

I also don’t think that narrowing the range of standards available for each subject is a bad thing. It’s currently possible to complete a full NCEA English course without studying a written text. This is ridiculous. When assessment outcomes are high-stakes and you’re talking about a job that involves convincing teenagers to do things, you have to assume that the easiest pathway to a qualification is the one that most people will end up taking. This will disproportionately affect those students who are already the most disadvantaged, leaving them with qualifications that don’t represent the knowledge and skills needed to fully participate in our society.

Narrowing the options levels the playing field – provided that schools and students are given the resources they need to meet the new standards. Our goal for equity in education needs to be around the knowledge and skills students develop in school – qualifications are a proxy for this, not the end goal. If these changes result in increased disparities in terms of students gaining qualifications, it will be because we’re still not providing low-SES and Māori/Pasifika students with the knowledge and skills that they need. Changing the assessment system isn’t going to fix this problem, but it might help us see it more clearly.

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