NCEA review: Let's address quality

A study of 1,600 students highlights shortcomings in learning, write researchers in Victoria's School of Education.

Education Minister Chris Hipkins has announced there will be a review of NCEA this year.

The Terms of Reference for this review identify five key areas of focus: wellbeing, equity, coherence, pathways and credibility. The Minister has stated that the two most important issues to address are the overassessment of students and the workload of teachers.

We welcome the review and support a focus on these two issues. But we also suggest the review needs a stronger focus on the quality of the learning assessed by NCEA.  

NCEA is a vast improvement over the previous exam-based system as it allows students to gain recognition of what they do know, rather than being punished for what they don't. NCEA also recognises a much wider range of learning than the previous system, which was dominated by university requirements.

However, under NCEA there has been an ever-increasing focus on accumulating credits without enough attention paid to the quality or depth of learning in courses.

This tendency was compounded in 2012 by the National Government's Better Public Service target, which aimed for 85 per cent of all young people to achieve NCEA Level Two by 2017. This incentivised schools and students to accumulate credits by any means possible and, staggeringly, the proportion of students attaining Level Two in 2017 was more than 10 percentage points higher than in 2011.

It is not at all clear that this rise has been achieved entirely through an increase in high-quality learning. Literacy rates remain low among school leavers and youth unemployment remains high.  

Our concerns about NCEA assessment practices are informed by our 2017 study of more than 1600 first-year students at Victoria University of Wellington.

On the positive side, a majority expressed satisfaction with NCEA, especially with its flexibility in subject choice and mode of assessment. In the words of one student: "Everyone could study something that suited their interests and needs . . . and there were a range of internal and external opportunities to do well."

However, unless faced with specific prerequisites for higher education, there was little or no incentive for students to attempt what they perceived as more 'difficult' NCEA assessments or to ensure they attained adequate coverage of the subjects studied.

Many students reported that they did not complete the full assessment programmes for their courses. For example, 39 per cent of students said they had withdrawn from achievement standards in order to reduce their workloads. In addition, 13 per cent had withdrawn from one or more external assessments and seven per cent from internal assessments if they thought they wouldn't pass. A further 25 per cent reported abandoning standards to concentrate on doing better in others.

While our findings reflect strategies that might well be effective for maximising grades, our concern is these practices undermine deep learning across the breadth and depth of a subject and lead to fragmented and incomplete knowledge.

A coherent course structure becomes almost impossible to achieve because different students make different decisions about which work to undertake, based on factors that have nothing to do with the curriculum.

In addition, because NCEA does not recognise some standards might be more central to the understanding of a discipline than others, there's no incentive to complete such standards if they are perceived as 'difficult' and if apparently 'easier' ones provide the same number of credits.

This poses a real risk to students' learning of foundational disciplinary knowledge, with students potentially going into higher education with substantial gaps.

It is likely the NCEA review will recommend reducing the quantity of assessment. However, simply reducing assessment is likely to exacerbate issues of fragmented and incomplete coverage of disciplines by reducing the incentive for students to learn aspects of courses no longer assessed. Nor will it provide any incentive for students to attempt so-called 'difficult' achievement standards.  

What we are calling for is not a structural change to NCEA but a change in how it is utilised — from an emphasis on credit accumulation to a focus on the quality of learning NCEA certifies.

A way this could be accomplished would be to integrate assessment into programmes of learning, so assessments are no longer discrete events. Rather, the work students undertake to build their learning could be collated in portfolios. Late in the year, these portfolios could be used to award credits towards standards.

This article is by Dr Bronwyn Wood, Dr Michael Johnston, Dr Sue Cherrington, Dr Suzanne Boniface and Dr Anita Mortlock.

Read the original article on Stuff.