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Heather Roy's Diary

Heather Roy's Diary

While Heather Roy is away, Heather's Diary is being written by guest columnists. This week's contribution is from Jack Edmonds, a 16 year old High School student from Wellington.

The introduction of NCEA - the National Certificate of Educational Achievement - was marked by debate, protest and confusion. Having actually been a student studying for NCEA, I would like to add my perspective.

Internal and External Assessment

Since rolling out NCEA, it has been a great relief to the Minister of Education that students like internal assessment. What he hasn't told parents is why - that many students see it as a softer, easier option. After all, what is there to fear when you can take work up to the teacher and be told that you will pass if you just re-do this question in this way? It's far less confrontational - and less difficult - than facing an exam.

The main problems with internal assessment are the still unresolved issues around marking and moderation, along with an inconsistent approach to reassessments. Schools are encouraged to allow students to re-sit any internal assessments they failed, so they can achieve as many credits as possible. Whether re-sitting is allowed, however, ultimately depends on the school and the teacher - and there's no check that students receive an equal chance as their peers in other schools, or even in the class next door.

Even for those subjects assessed by exams, there are flaws. NCEA exams are comprised of several papers, but are three hours long regardless of whether a student is sitting five, four, or just one of the papers within that exam. As NCEA is a 'flexible' qualification, schools can drop papers from exams solely to give their students more time for the papers remaining. Perhaps surprisingly, only the papers a student sat and passed are included on their "Record of Learning" (the transcript of credits and grades collected). Employers are expected to know - or not care - how many exams and papers their prospective employee sat to gain their 80 credits.


NCEA exams are marked under a criterion-referenced system, where the final grade depends on which (and not how many) questions are answered correctly. This makes it possible for candidates to fail - despite getting marks of more than 50% - because they are not considered the 'right' marks. This problem is further compounded by marking schedules which dictate certain keywords that must be used to unlock maximum points. Students could perhaps be forgiven for thinking that a qualifications system which gives less value to knowledge than to an ability to recite magical words seems like something out of Harry Potter's class in divination.

Partly to counter this, the Ministry of Education has introduced a 'profile of expected performance'. As soon as exam marking starts, results are sampled to see if they diverge too much from expectations, and if so, corrections are made. In theory, if a question is widely misinterpreted this will alert markers and let them fix results accordingly, but in reality it is just elementary scaling - fitting actual results around an expected average score.

Despite this 'profile of expected performance', it's almost impossible to tell whether a person is passing or failing compared to the national average. Proponents of NCEA argue that this lack of a predetermined pass and fail rate is a good thing, as students are less likely to leave school without a qualification, but the lack of statistical correction also deprives schools and students of a guarantee that marking will be consistent from one year to the next.

As a way of trying to improve the coherence of results, the Grade Point Average (GPA) was introduced. This credit-weighted average, calculated on all achievement standards a student had passed, was designed to reduce results in each subject to a single aggregated score. Unfortunately it has several flaws, and has already been dropped after it became apparent that the highest GPA (100) can be obtained by passing one paper with Excellence and failing the rest, while students who gain Merit grades in every paper they sit would only receive a GPA of 75.

Results and the Record of Learning

Another issue which weighs heavily on the minds of students sitting NCEA is the dubious difference between 'Not Achieved', 'Achieved', 'Merit' and 'Excellence'. Reducing a student's results to these four broad grades hides their true performance, as those who are one mark off a higher grade are effectively lumped in with all those one mark away from dropping to the grade below.

That leads to the ultimate problem with NCEA - a lack of clear information on what differentiates one person from the next. A student is only measured against the system, rather than against their peers.

Ultimately, this is why many students (let alone employers) find it useless to consult an NCEA "Record of Learning". It is simply too difficult to tell which assessments were internal and external, which were unit standards or achievement standards, and what each standard meant. NZQA are currently consulting on improvements, but it remains unlikely they will show whether papers were internally or externally assessed, and they still refuse to list failure.

Ultimately, all that an NCEA level certificate tells an employer is whether their applicant attained at least 80 out of a huge range of possible credits. The opportunity to see whether those credits were attained easily, after repeated attempts or in relevant papers, is denied them.

It is obvious to students - if not the government - that NCEA was rushed out too soon, and that the results could be disastrous. We were promised a comprehensive, unified and coherent system, but when even the government has declared 'deferred success' on the system, we know it has failed.


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