Peter Lyons: Robust debate key to fixing NCEA problems

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This year is the 10th anniversary of the NCEA qualification in our schools. Photo / Paul Estcourt
This year is the 10th anniversary of the NCEA qualification in our schools. Photo / Paul Estcourt

This year is the 10th anniversary of the NCEA qualification in our schools. Controversy over this qualification has festered but gradually diminished. Teachers have become accustomed to the increased workload that it requires and many of the anomalies have been ironed out. In recent years the Qualifications Authority appears to have adopted a United States-Iraq war approach. Declare victory and gradually withdraw from the fray.

The problem that the Qualifications Authority (NZQA) has had to deal with over the past decade has been the cost of resourcing NCEA. It has required a huge amount of time and effort in administering NCEA to ensure a degree of consistency of student results within and between subjects and schools. The solution that NZQA has come up with is to throw more of the assessment back on schools and teachers. From next year more student work will be marked by their teachers rather than assessed by external exams.

The nightmare that the Qualification Authority has had to live with over the past decade has been the media scrutiny of NCEA.

The qualification requires students to sit multiple papers in each subject at each level. Each of these papers must be marked by different panels. The marking process has to somehow ensure pass rates and grades are relatively consistent with other subjects. It would not be a good look if the national pass rate for geography was 95 per cent yet for physics it was 25 per cent. Without a system of scaling, which NCEA does not allow, such an outcome could easily occur.

Each year NZQA has had to deal with logistics of hundreds of thousands of exam papers being mailed in all directions. Over the years this huge exercise has resulted in students getting back someone else's exam paper or papers getting lost or results going astray. The media has gleefully pointed out these errors.

The solution of schools and teachers doing more of the marking significantly reduces these issues for NZQA. Unfortunately it increases the risk of divergence in standards of marking within and between subjects and schools. We are back to the problem of how to ensure this national qualification is administered with the same validity at Gore High School as it is at Mt Roskill Grammar. A further problem arises if the economics teacher is an easier marker than the geography teacher down the corridor.

There is no easy solution. Any assessment system has flaws. Some schools have opted for alternative systems such as the Cambridge International Exams. These have little internal assessment, and student results are largely determined by end-of-year exams. Each year students sit their Cambridge exams which are sent off to overseas markers. Their results are then scaled in some magical way and the student duly receives a mark. Students do not receive their exams back nor is there any transparency in how their results were scaled. Final results can be hit and miss. One of my strangest days in teaching was listening to a visiting Cambridge examiner telling us how we should be teaching and assessing our students. It was a lesson in colonial cringe.

The big advantage of NCEA is that it is ours. Because it is ours we have the means to make it work better. Sadly, any robust debate has been stifled as the battle lines between those for and against have hardened. Meaningful dialogue has been lost in the process.

On the 10th anniversary of the introduction of NCEA the problem of validity of assessment has not gone away. This problem is not insurmountable. It is because of the inability of educators to engage in robust constructive debate without descending into opposing camps.

Peter Lyons teaches economics at St Peter's College in Epsom and has taught NCEA and Cambridge courses.

- NZ Herald

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