A survey of 1777 secondary school teachers has found nearly half believe the national assessment system, NCEA, is adversely affecting their teaching. Their concerns are familiar: too much time has to be spent doing tests, and the need to teach to the test limits their ability to improve their lessons or even maintain the quality of the curriculum they teach. The problem is worse in higher-decile schools where more than half of the staff feel they spend too much time on assessment exercises, but the level of dissatisfaction was 47 per cent overall.
It is cold comfort to hear a Ministry of Education official say the results are an improvement on those from a similar survey in 2012. To her the findings meant support for the NCEA was "stable". But the system has been in schools since the turn of the century. After all this time, it ought to be so comfortably established in the classroom that very few teachers feel it inhibits what they can do.
The big change NCEA brought to senior secondary education was to replace external examinations with exercises that could be set and marked within the school. The benefits would be that pupils would be assessed by teachers who knew what they could do rather than face the pressure of an exam in which their written work would need to impress someone who did not know them. Internal assessment would have the added benefit of permitting pupils to repeat tests in which they had not done well within the same year so that their progress need not be impeded by one poor performance. The system was designed to let young people learn at their own pace and receive credit for what they knew and could do, encouraging them to continue learning to the highest level they could manage.
Though there were warnings from the beginning that regular testing and retesting throughout the year would amount to a greater workload for teachers, they and their professional bodies were generally enthusiasts for the change, and instigators of it. They soon discovered that they would have to do more than mark their tests, they would need to take part in "moderation" exercises with teachers of their subject in other schools to ensure they were testing and marking to the same standard.
Moderation appears to have worked well. Fears that NCEA's credibility would depend on the reputation of the school awarding it have not come to pass. While some subjects may offer easier credits than others, and some schools offer international examinations on top of NCEA for their more scholarly pupils, the national qualification has achieved its desired consistency. So much so, that schools keenly compare their NCEA results, as do parents and pupils if a "league table" is published.
This sort of competition is being blamed for the way testing has come to dominate the senior classroom. The level of teachers' concern suggests a need to reduce the regularity of assessment exercises and perhaps return to a decisive end-of-year exam for those whose teachers are confident they can pass one. Education is broader than the best test.
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