With secondary school students having now received their 2008 exam results and a new school year fast approaching, it is likely the National Certificate for Educational Achievement (NCEA) will once again be subjected to the harsh criticisms and media outrage which have become almost inevitable at this time of year.
And indeed, many of the concerns about the ease of NCEA, the inconsistency of marking and the lack of recognition for success are valid. However, such concerns about the application of the system do not necessarily mean the system itself is flawed.

In 2002, the biggest change introduced by NCEA was skills-based testing. Under School Certificate, a pass mark was assigned if a student gained more correct answers than half of the other students who sat that course. NCEA, on the other hand, assesses students on their ability to display certain essential skills in a given area.
The benefit of this approach is that, rather than focussing on rote-learning information, students are encouraged to learn the core skills which underpin the subjects they are studying. This skills-based learning is all the more important given that these days any nearby computer can perform most simple memory recall.

The use of internal assessment – assessment carried out during the school year – also aids NCEA’s skills-based approach. Because research projects and practical tasks take weeks or even months to complete, they are far better managed in the classroom setting by the students’ teachers. The benefit of NCEA is that these assessments can be marked by teachers, with samples then checked on a national level to ensure uniformity.

Internal assessments and the focus on skills both aid the development of students’ critical thinking abilities. They mean that students are able to choose the research project they’d like to undertake or the piece of clothing they’d like to design. And rather than being told that there is a right and a wrong way of doing things, students are encouraged to reach their own conclusions and develop their own approaches.

One of the main objections to the old system was that people were only marked relative to their peers. Under NCEA, there is far more emphasis on a skills-based benchmark for each subject. While this means the percentage of people passing year-to-year differs, it has the potential to allow the development of a consistent standard for all students, no matter how strong or weak the other students in your year are.

Unfortunately, these broad benefits of NCEA have not always been realised. While the general principles behind it are sound, there are still too many flaws in the system which have turned out to be far more than teething problems.

In fact, by marking to broad principles, many critics feel that there is not enough guidance for markers, leading to more inconsistency, not less. The degree of inconsistency is contested by the New Zealand Qualifications Authority, who administer NCEA, but it is certainly true that with a more holistic (some say vague) marking schedule, the opinions of the markers often fill in the blanks.
Even the skills-based approach of NCEA has not always lived up to expectations. In NCEA papers, students gain credits by meeting the criteria for “Achieved”. They can also gain higher grades of “Merit” or “Excellence” if they demonstrate higher level skills.

However, there are no extra credits given to students who gain Merit or Excellence in a given paper. Consequently, many students only aim to gain Achieved grades, and they still pass the course with the same number of credits as if they had gained Merit or even Excellence grades in those papers.
Most worryingly, because many of the more difficult and valuable skills are only tested at merit or excellence level, the rise in students only aiming for Achieved grades undermines much of the supposed value of skills-based testing.

Finally, NCEA also introduced Unit Standards. Unit Standards are separate assessments which are often easier than the corresponding Achievement Standard. However, the credits gained by passing a Unit Standard are the same as those gained by passing an Achievement Standard.
In some respects, this is valuable, as Unit Standards provide a means of engaging with students who might otherwise be left out of the system. They can test very different skills which an Achievement Standard may not.

The problem is that many schools have all their students sit Unit Standards, giving some students the extra credits they need to pass, and bumping up that school’s pass rates along the way. In the long run, as more and more students and schools opt for the easier Unit Standards, students’ levels of achievement are likely to decrease as a result.
You may well wonder why these problems haven’t simply been ironed out along the way. In its early years, NZQA brushed off many criticisms, expecting that issues like marker subjectivity would simply disappear as the system developed.

Unfortunately for students, and for the rest of us who depend upon a credible system of assessment, this has not always happened. If NCEA wants to deal with the issues which remain, two things need to be done. Firstly, they should ensure that Unit Standards are only available where there is no corresponding Achievement Standard, or the Achievement Standards for that subject are genuinely beyond a student. Secondly, they need to introduce a system which explicitly recognises the extra effort and achievement which a Merit or Excellence grade entails.

There are signs that NZQA are listening. Recently, they have introduced a certificate endorsed with Merit or Excellence for students who pass the year with a given number of Merit or Excellence grades. This is a solid step towards recognising achievement in students, but it remains to be seen if it will be enough.
In the meantime, students and parents can hold on to the fact that at least NCEA’s focus on skills should leave students a few steps ahead of the nearest computer.

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