The decision by WBHS to gradually phase out the opportunity for its students to enter the Cambridge International Examinations (CIE) made headlines in the NZ Herald last week.
Naturally it is the right of every school to be able to choose how it assesses its students, and it was pleasing to see the Minister of Education continue to support the ability of schools to have choice in this matter.
I doubt whether Westlake's decision will have much impact on other schools studying the CIE curriculum and assessment format as over the years the number of schools deciding to follow the Cambridge pathway has grown from one school (Auckland Grammar School) in 2002 to close to 70 schools today, and interest continues to grow.
The strength of the CIE curriculum can be seen in the fact that last year the top three schools in the demanding NZ Scholarship Examination were all "Cambridge Schools", namely Westlake BHS, Auckland Grammar School and Macleans College.
The PPTA President has suggested that schools should not have such a choice because she believes it is undermining NCEA. Clearly the blinkers are still on at PPTA headquarters.
Rather than blame CIE and IB for engendering a lack of confidence in NCEA, perhaps they should look at NCEA and discuss how best to improve what it offers which is gradually becoming no more than a credit accumulation exercise. The NCEA system encourages schools and students to choose soft-option unit standards and easier achievement standards so that schools reach the 85% pass rate demanded by the government.
It is an inconvenient fact that while pass rates in NCEA are increasing year on year, our performance in international tests like PISA is steadily falling. This tends to indicate that our students' learning/knowledge/skills are not genuinely improving. Rather, we are witnessing grade inflation.
When I introduced CIE into New Zealand it was because of gross dissatisfaction with the entire NCEA reform process. I had been a member of the Principals' Lead Group in the 1990s and the Leaders' Forum in 2000-2001 that was set up by the government of the day to look at our qualifications system.
I witnessed at first-hand how the entire process was flawed; research was limited; minimal trialling was done; moderation of results was, and still is minimal with no effect on a student's final result; and the outcome, predictably, has been a qualifications system that is badly in need of review because it is a flawed system that is too open to 'gaming' by schools desperate for some positive publicity.
It is common knowledge that 'gaming' occurs. For example, schools maximising the easier to get internally assessed standards and minimising the more demanding external assessments; and withdrawing candidates from NZQA data who are failing, to ensure higher pass rates.
At that time (2001) the rationale behind introducing CIE at Auckland Grammar School was a recognition that Internationalisation was an already growing trend in tertiary education and in the future would almost certainly be reflected more strongly in senior secondary school curricula; that increasing numbers of our students were wanting to study overseas and they would need a more widely recognised and 'portable' qualification than either University Bursary or the new NCEA; and international benchmarking was another growing trend. Participation in international qualifications would offer our students a local opportunity to be internationally competitive. It would also provide a measure of the school's achievement in a global context.
It remains even truer today that we, as a country, can no longer be insular or parochial about curricula and the performance level of our students, for our school leavers now find themselves in an international workplace where the jobs depend on international rather than national conditions and where their credentials must have international currency. There is a distinct need for our students to become global citizens through an education and a curriculum that is self-consciously international.
There is no doubt that there have been improvements of the NCEA system over the past 15 years but until it becomes a genuinely transparent, fair, consistent and comparable system of assessment, schools who value academic rigour and challenge will continue to look for alternatives that are internationally recognised and provided by a reputable organisation.
John Morris is a former Headmaster at Auckland Grammar and is the Founding Chairman of the Association of Cambridge Schools NZ