Worthless or Worthwhile?: The Great NCEA Reform
BY NITHYA NARAYANAN
The National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) has always been a contentious and frequently criticized regime. Since its inception in 2004, the system has fielded a wide range of accusations, including the notion that it promotes memorisation, and that it has fostered a culture of “teaching to the test”. In 2018, the Ministry of Education undertook consultation to determine what changes might be made to NCEA. As part of this, the Government consulted not only with students, but also sought input from bodies such as the Ministerial Advisory Group and the Professional Advisory Group. In May 2019, the Government published the results of this engagement, and indicated what the NCEA process might look like going forward.
One of the key aspects of the proposed overhaul is a relaxation of the credit requirements. Under the new system, each student will sit five to six subjects a year, each worth 20 credits, for a maximum possible 100 or 120 credits. 60 credits - as opposed to the current 80 - will be required to attain each level. Students would, however, also have to achieve 20 credits in literacy and numeracy as a “co-requisite” for NCEA. Notably, under the new system, students would be able to start accumulating these credits from Year 7 onwards - well before formal NCEA assessment begins in Year 11. The Government has suggested that the purpose of the reduced credit requirement is to stop students (and teachers) wasting time building up massive credit surpluses. This seems legitimate, particularly considering reports that there are students attempting as many as 200 credits at Level 1 when, in fact, they require only 80. However, the obvious counter-argument is that what NCEA’s detractors describe as “credit-farming” is likely contributing to students’ intellectual development. While reducing the minimum credit requirement may reduce the pressures on both students and staff, it may also contribute to a generally lax educational culture - which may well be problematic in terms of preparing students for university. The fact that the new literacy and numeracy standards would be externally graded also seems to suggest that the Ministry is more concerned with reducing teacher workloads than with improving educational outcomes.
It is interesting, too, to consider how the recently announced proposals compare with the original recommendations provided by the advisory board last year. Some of these recommendations provided innovative, out-of-the box approaches to addressing the concerns around NCEA’s oft-criticised culture of rote learning and lack of applicability. The recommendations included, for instance, a proposal to reduce NCEA Level 1 to just 40 internally assessed credits and a project “driven by learners’ passions”. Also included was the suggestion that the Government look at broadening the definition of “literacy” to include “digital, financial, or civic literacy”, and the proposal that at least 20 out of the 80 credits at Levels 2 and 3 should come from “pathways” such as trades courses, research projects, and community work. Further, it was suggested that NZQA’s Record of Achievement - which currently displays only academic grades - should be expanded to include a CV-style description of the student’s extra-curricular activities. Interestingly, however, most of these suggestions are nowhere to be seen in the final Government report. The Government’s reluctance to adopt these more radical suggestions could be interpreted as a broader fear of overly deacademizing the system. Ironically, NCEA has historically suffered criticism for being too “easy” compared to its internationally accredited counterparts, Cambridge and IB - and a move towards more ‘practical’ benchmarks for assessment would likely attract further censure of this kind.
One of more positive things to come out of the report is a genuine intention to make access to NCEA more accessible for all. The report notes that, during the consultation stage, a number of Maori respondents expressed concerns around an NCEA system that is not equitable for Maori, and that inhibits too many Maori students from experiencing success. To address these concerns, the Government has proposed integrating Te Reo Maori and Matauranga Maori into NCEA graduate profiles and achievement standards. The report also expresses a desire to develop more standards to reflect that Matauranga Maori is acknowledged and credentialed equally by NCEA, particularly in the performing arts. This would also mean ensuring that, where appropriate, Maori concepts are built into assessment more generally. For example, this might include having Maori-centred contexts for exemplars and assessment resources. It might also involve having modes of assessment that allow for diverse cultural perspectives on issues; for example, by considering community or hapu impact as opposed to just individual user needs. The report also affirms that the Government is invested in making access to NCEA equitable more generally. Most notably, it expresses an intention to make NCEA and NCEA Scholarship exams fee-free, and to modify achievement standards so that students with disabilities and learning support needs have equal opportunity to achieve.
There is no doubt that NCEA reform is long overdue; the question is what should be done, and how. By undertaking thorough consultative processes, the Government has already demonstrated a genuine intention to provide optimal solutions. However, some aspects of the proposal - such as the lowering of credit requirements - are obviously contentious, and may require further thought. The proposal is by no means final; the Government’s change package proclaims that the Ministry will “now work with key stakeholders on the detailed design of [the] changes”, as well as to “understand [their] implications”. One can only hope that, when the changes are eventually introduced, they reflect what is best for student outcomes.
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