Dale Burden: NCEA should be seen as a Kiwi success story

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Our secondary school qualification, NCEA, has never been stronger. Photo / Greg Bowker
Our secondary school qualification, NCEA, has never been stronger. Photo / Greg Bowker

A review of NCEA grades by the New Zealand Qualifications Authority found moderators agreed with 76 per cent of grades awarded by teachers last year - a rate that NZQA says shows parents can have confidence in the system, but which was criticised by a few school leaders who are perhaps more concerned with marketing.

Our secondary school qualification, NCEA, has never been stronger. It motivates and rewards students and has virtually the entire sector behind it. It is held up internationally as a "world-class" qualification, and now that it is perfectly aligned with the New Zealand curriculum it is even more effective. It is transportable all over the world, as countless New Zealand students studying in overseas universities will attest.

NCEA rewards credits for both internal and external assessment. Internal assessment is an important and valid part of the system. The best assessor of a student's learning is their teacher.

However, it is important that their decisions are at the same standard as other teachers. A lot of work goes on in schools making sure that teachers are making consistent decisions. Assisting teachers is the national moderation system. This is where student work at the margins of the grades is sent away for checking. The checker, known as a moderator, is likely to be a teacher from a different school.

It is unlikely, in fact impossible, that every decision made by every teacher will be exactly in line with the moderators' decisions. Most often the decisions are marginal. The fact that 80 per cent of these line calls were in favour of the teachers' marks in 2012, and 76 per cent in 2013, indicates a high level of consistency.

This is a far cry from the days of School Certificate, Sixth Form Certificate and Bursary. School C and Bursary were effectively gate-keeping tools with a built-in scaling system that only allowed the same percentage of students to pass each year - hardly a standard at all. As for Sixth Form Certificate, its results (grades 1-10) were allocated to individual schools based on their performance in the previous year's School C performance. Too bad if there was a dramatic improvement in performance of the cohort the following year, as the grades for the school stayed the same.

We have a national qualification that we can be proud of and it is therefore disappointing that a few people annually and unsuccessfully attempt to undermine it to promote alternative qualifications. They would be far better to work collegially with the vast majority to continually improve what is already a great product.

I believe it is now time to shift the debate to something far more important to the future of the sector - the quality of teaching. Education expert Professor John Hattie, among others, has highlighted that the most important school-based factor on student achievement is not whether the school is single sex or co-ed, the type of class groups it has or the assessment tools it uses, it is the quality of the teaching. The longer we spend on tired old qualifications arguments, the longer we postpone a debate of real importance - defining what a quality teacher is and making sure we get one in front of every student, for every lesson, every day.

Dale Burden is the headmaster of Mt Albert Grammar School.

- NZ Herald

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