Innovation in course design and assessment is needed to get the most from NCEA

The following commentary is provided by Faculty of Education senior lecturer Dr Michael Johnston.

A little more than a decade ago NCEA was introduced with a promise that it would result in greater qualifications attainment by school leavers.  Its architects can rightly claim that this promise has been kept: The proportions of students staying at school for year 13 and leaving with at least NCEA Level 2 have increased steadily, with the improvement being particularly notable for Māori and Pasifika students, and for students from less wealthy communities.

NCEA was a radical departure from a system dominated by time-limited examinations, in which pre-determined proportions of students would pass and fail.  It includes a substantial component of course-based assessment and students’ success is, in theory at least, determined solely by their performance in relation to defined standards. It is this latter, standards-based feature of NCEA, together with its accumulative, piecemeal approach to assessment, to which we can attribute the improvement in qualifications achievement.

Such radical change was always going to be controversial and in the early days of NCEA, its success, and even its survival, were by no means assured. It was launched into a storm of criticism, at least some of which could have been avoided. In particular, technical experts such as Professors Cedric Hall and Warwick Elley had been warning for some time that the piecemeal structure of NCEA would lead to reliability problems and to a fragmentation of curriculum. Furthermore, they argued, achieving consistency in the application of assessment standards would require much more than the brief descriptions that were initially provided. Unfortunately these critics were ignored and in 2005 extraordinary variability in the scholarship results and in many NCEA standards generated a serious crisis of public confidence in NCEA.

Careful work on both political and policy fronts over the next few years saved NCEA, with measures introduced to improve the reliability of assessment and the consistency with which the requirements of standards were interpreted. Even so, while the political controversy has largely abated, one of the early criticisms – that of the impact of the NCEA on curriculum – remains partially addressed at best.

To be fair to the government agencies responsible for NCEA, policy measures can go only so far towards addressing the curriculum problem; it is largely a matter of teaching practice. Of course, policy has a role, most particularly to legitimise and encourage innovation and experimentation. But it is only confident teachers with expertise in the material that they teach, in course design and in good assessment practice, who can get the most out of NCEA.

Any high-stakes assessment system has an effect on teaching and learning; teachers will naturally focus on the elements of curriculum that will serve their students best in assessments. Unfortunately however, some of the most important learning does not lend itself easily to assessment. NCEA actually has an advantage over purely examination-based systems in this regard because its internal assessment component can be used to design assessments that are far wider in scope than a traditional exam can ever be.

However, negotiating the ‘fragmentation problem’, first raised by critics such as Elley and Hall, will always be a challenge under NCEA. In a nutshell this problem arises because the assessment standards for NCEA, which cover relatively circumscribed areas of knowledge and skill are all too often treated as if they were units to be taught and assessed in isolation from one another. Thus, what could be a coherent course ends up being broken into fragments; the connections between those fragments are not necessarily made.

Avoiding the fragmentation problem involves designing courses that are coherent, in which the connections between conceptual elements are present from the very start. Assessing such a course using NCEA standards requires innovative thinking by teachers, in which there is not necessarily a single assessment activity for each standard. Rather, evidence of students’ achievement can be accreted over a range of activities that serve learning as well as assessment purposes. This approach can also help to ensure that important material has been mastered solidly enough to support further learning, rather than being superficially and temporarily learned for the sole purpose of gaining credits.

This was originally published in the Dominion Post on 13 September 2016.