The implications of the NCEA review for equality of access to knowledge

Dr Michael Johnston, Victoria University of Wellington

The current review of NCEA – New Zealand’s secondary school qualification system spanning the final three years of schooling – has been established to address problems with the qualifications system as it is presently implemented and used.

Problems to be addressed

One such problem is over-assessment. Currently, internal assessment for NCEA involves students in a regime of near-constant formal assessment in which, unfortunately, credits – rather than authentic learning – are the most highly-prized currency. This is unnecessarily stressful and contributes to high levels of anxiety for students, high workloads for teachers and an obsession with the accumulation of credits for both.

The review also aims to address the ‘fragmentation’ of courses caused by the use of achievement standards as if they were curriculum ‘topics’. The typical structure of an NCEA course is a sequence of such topics, with a summative assessment event at the end of each. This results in students learning in a piecemeal way, with connections between the knowledge assessed by the different standards often omitted from courses.

A welcome proposal

One of the changes proposed by the Ministerial Advisory Group (MAG) charged with making recommendations on the review is to have fewer standards, with larger numbers of credits associated with each. This would help to address both problems (over-assessment and fragmentation). If fewer but ‘larger’ standards were used to assess each course, students would experience fewer assessment events and teachers would have fewer assessments to set and mark, without any necessary loss of curriculum coverage. This would go some way towards alleviating stress and workload.

The fragmentation problem would also be reduced because the standards, even if they were still treated as separate curriculum units, would each cover a larger amount of course content. Even so, while the sequential teaching of standards persists, the fragmentation problem will not be entirely eliminated. To overcome fragmentation, the relationship between course design and internal assessment would have to be completely reconceptualised – but that is a topic for another article.

The problem of knowledge

There is another, deeper, problem with NCEA – not apparently on the MAG’s agenda – which is that NCEA is ambivalent with regard to the nature of the knowledge that it certifies. This ambivalence is actually a design principle of NCEA. The qualifications system is intended to recognise the knowledge that students have acquired by the time they leave school. The array of available standards is so broad that there is almost no limit to the kind of knowledge that can be certified. All credits count equally towards qualifications and there are no compulsory standards.

From a certain perspective this flexibility is attractive; it can be argued that it redresses a traditional hierarchy of knowledge that placed mathematics and science at the top, followed by the humanities and foreign languages, with vocationally-oriented study much lower down. Under the old School Certificate and Bursary qualifications system, the upper echelons of this hierarchy were largely the preserve of students from upper-middle class families, with poorer students relegated to lower-status study.

While it remains the case today that students at high-decile schools are more likely to be studying subjects that result in them gaining university entrance than those at low-decile schools, NCEA policy has sought to abolish the knowledge hierarchy through its equal valuing of all knowledge. This would be a valid objective under a postmodern argument that disciplines high on the hierarchy were there only because they comprised the knowledge of already-powerful people and served their interests. Like many falsehoods, this argument contains a grain of truth; Māori cultural knowledge has been unjustly devalued in the past and its elevation under NCEA is a welcome development.

More generally, however, I think that the postmodern argument is exactly backwards. Mathematics, science, languages, the humanities and the arts ought to be highly valued, not because they are the knowledge of the already-powerful but because understandings of these disciplines make people powerful. These disciplines are not arbitrary silos of knowledge, but have evolved within cultures over the course of centuries to become powerful methods for testing theories and for expressing cultural and ethical ideas. Alongside language, the epistemic disciplines (those concerned with generating knowledge – such as science and mathematics) and the aesthetic disciplines (those concerned with cultural expression and ethical thinking – such as music and literature), are core elements of all cultures. To be without knowledge of at least some of these disciplines is to be culturally impoverished. The problem for education then is not so much how to revalue knowledge itself, but how to bring powerful knowledge to those who lack power.

Hiding disadvantage behind a veneer of opportunity

Unfortunately, some of the more substantial changes to NCEA proposed by the MAG would almost certainly exacerbate the extant socio-economic gradient of access to powerful knowledge. In particular, I refer to the proposals to introduce compulsory 20-credit projects at each NCEA level. The scope of these projects as they are described in the MAG’s proposal document is incredibly broad. It is envisaged that students might complete projects in curriculum areas, engage with local businesses or tertiary providers, or undertake civic engagement.

There is a plethora of difficulties that would be associated with implementing this idea. It is unclear that running a project every year for all senior students would be manageable for schools, or that teachers have the training to guide students to develop projects that would result in substantial learning. Far from alleviating teachers’ workloads, supervising individualised projects for every NCEA student seems certain to increase them. Furthermore, the way in which projects might be assessed is not addressed at all in the proposal document. It is very hard to see how assessment criteria could be developed that could be applied consistently across the spectrum of project types that is being mooted.

The most serious problem however is what these proposals would mean for the kinds of knowledge that students acquire in their last years at school. My grave fear is that the quality of the knowledge that students would acquire through these projects – in terms of the affordance of opportunities for employment, further education, the development of civic and political awareness and, most fundamentally, for developing cultural engagement – would be very uneven, and that it would tend to decline with the socioeconomic circumstances of students and their schools.

In urban schools serving affluent, well-educated communities, parents would be likely to put considerable pressure on schools to ensure that any project-based component of NCEA was firmly focussed on ‘powerful’ knowledge. In poorer or more remote communities however, schools would be likely to gear themselves towards vocational pathways serving local industries. Indeed, this has already occurred under the current model of NCEA, with students at low decile schools much more likely to complete qualifications with high proportions of vocationally-oriented unit standards, and commensurately lower proportions of academically-oriented achievement standards, than their counterparts at high decile schools. While these students might obtain employment – although even this is uncertain in a rapidly-changing economy – the disadvantage that already limits these students’ access to the kinds of knowledge that could lead to the breaking of inter-generational cycles of poverty would be further entrenched.

michael-johnston.jpgDr Michael Johnston is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Education at Victoria University. He has previously been a chief research analyst at the Ministry of Education and a senior statistician at the New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA), where he conducted research and analysis contributing to evidence-based policy and development for New Zealand’s national qualification system for secondary-school students. He has authored a number of peer-reviewed papers published in international and local journals, and contributed to books on child and adult literacy and on educational assessment. Dr Johnston is a member of a Technical Overview Group (Assessment), an independent committee providing expert technical advice to NZQA.

One comment

  1. I think this is a very good analysis of the issues concerning both the hierarchy of knowledge and the flaws of the project concept. I hope this piece gets distributed more widely. Ngā mihi!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s