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NCEA: Under Examination

Nicholas Holm



As the dust settles on the changeover to the National Certificate of Educational Achievement, the critics are yet to be silenced. SALIENT Feature Writer Nicholas Holm examines the effect on University students, and asks if the students are getting more stupid, or has the system always been to blame?
The implementation of the National Certificate of Education Achievement, or NCEA as it is more commonly known, has not been without its critics or, indeed, its problems. Since its full introduction in 2004, NCEA has come under fire from principals, students, parents and education experts. Barely a week has gone by without some scandal or media beat-up of the beleaguered assessment system – opposition MPs claim that it fails to create incentives for the brightest pupils and that it shuts out students who fail to attain minimum standards. In the last month alone, Bill English accused NCEA of excluding students from “New Zealand’s knowledge economy”, the Dominion Post reported that the workload associated with NCEA was leading to teacher burnout, and complaints were heard at the PPTA conference that NCEA suppressed students’ desire for better grades. From the standpoint of universities such as Victoria, these questions can be considered ‘academic’ – which makes them all the more worrying.
Needless to say, the university will continue to function irrespective of teacher burnout or a high student dropout rate. Callous as it sounds, it’s unlikely that students who leave school without qualifications under NCEA would have made it to university under any assessment regime. The real problem lies with the students who do attain the proper accreditation to qualify for university entrance: Are they adequately prepared to succeed, or even participate, in a university setting? When tutors mumble under their breath about students who fail to grasp the basics of grammar and punctuation, and lecturers find themselves faced with gigantic classes with minimalist approaches to scholarship, it’s time we asked ourselves: Is NCEA adequately preparing students for university, and was Bursary any better?
In my previous life as a chemistry lab demonstrator at a different university, I purposefully put myself in a position to witness the crossover from Bursary to NCEA firsthand. I’d seen the news reports and bought the T-shirt, but was intrigued as to whether the new assessment system would have any effect on the competence or skill sets of firstyear students. What I observed was far more dramatic than I’d anticipated. The Bursary class of 2004 couldn’t write lab reports to save their life, they could perform the experiments and had a decent grasp of what had happened, but there was no way they could explain that to anyone else. In marked contrast, the NCEA class of 2005 didn’t really seem to have any affinity for the bigger picture; they were more concerned about following each step as they came to it and progressed in a methodical and diligent manner. They were clumsy with the lab equipment and much more prone to breakages and spillages. They could, however, write awesome lab reports. I’ve never been sure whether this dramatic shift in strengths and weaknesses was a fluke or pointed to fundamental differences in the way the two cohorts approached the subject. Maybe I was predisposed to see the groups in different ways, or maybe, just maybe, the NCEA students had been taught to consider education in a completely different way to the Bursary students.
“It’s early days yet for NCEA, we’ve only had two years of it at Level Three and I think it’s too early to make definitive kinds of judgments…”
Roger Moses
“It’s early days yet for NCEA, we’ve only had two years of it at Level Three and I think it’s too early to make definitive kinds of judgments,” says Roger Moses, the headmaster of local secondary school, Wellington College. “I think last year was better than the year before. Certainly improvements have been made but I think that in some ways, especially at Level Three, the jury’s still out.” Moses’s remarks are symptomatic of the reluctance at the secondary level to pronounce on NCEA one way or another. Prue Kelly, the headmaster at Wellington High, goes to some pains to point out that NCEA hasn’t changed the material taught, or the way it’s taught – only the way it’s assessed. “After all, it’s only an assessment tool, its not what they learn or anything. Any assessment tool is just that, a tool and its certainly giving a picture of what the kids know, it’s letting them take control of their own sort of learning, so I’m not against that,” she says. However a shift in assessment does have the potential to shift the way that student’s approach their final year at secondary school; a year which could be argued to haves little practical purpose beyond preparing them for further education. “There certainly is a danger that a smorgasbord approach can creep in,” warns Moses, referring not to a delicious Sweden-inspired spread of hot and cold dishes, but instead to the informal phrase often used to describe the course planning strategies of NCEA Level Three students. Under the NCEA system, students can attain University Entrance by picking and choosing standards from a range of subject areas and modules, which potentially absolves them of having to tackle any overly challenging material. Susan Harper, the manager at VUW Student Recruitment, perceives the smorgasbord attitude as response to a way in which subjects are “chunked” down under NCEA. “Sometimes kids might say, ‘Well I don’t like that particular little chunk of work so I’m not going to sit the external in that. I don’t really mind if I don’t get eighteen credits because I’m still going to get UE [University Entrance], I’m still going to get where I want.’ So they have the option of walking away from parts of the course.” These fears are echoed by Moses who says, “There is a real danger that, in some subjects, people will pick and choose and in some areas difficult parts of subjects will be ignored.”
Luanna Meyer is a professor of Education at VUW who has recently completed a major report on the impact of NCEA on student motivation. She is also the convener chair of the NZVCC subcommittee on entrance, which makes her uniquely qualified to speak on the ramifications of NCEA. She says that “the universities and the Sub-Committee on UE are collectively concerned at the growing list of ‘approved’ subjects that can be used by students to meet the general University Entrance standard.” She is concerned that a student taking the smorgasbord approach could, “accumulate credits in quite narrow areas that might not be the strongest preparation for university study, unless their university degree closely mirrors the subjects they used for entrance.” Meyer will not be drawn to compare NCEA to the previous Bursary system of assessment however, as she cautions that adequate pre-NCEA data is not available. Where she will comment though, is on the worrying trend for students to take a “minimalist approach”. “Some students work harder when they’re recognised … and they feel appreciated,” explains Meyer. “If they feel that once they’ve got their eighty credits there’s no point in going any further, then they will in fact quit at the point and wait until next year and there is some evidence that students are stopping their studies after they’ve got their eighty credits.” This, unfortunately, doesn’t work out too well for students who aim to do ‘just enough,’ and fall short of their mark, and even those who do manage to gain entrance are liable to find themselves without an adequate academic grounding. Still, it’s not all bad news. According to Meyer, there is some evidence that the literacy requirement for university entrance with the introduction of NCEA is having the desired effect, and “improving the situation for students… Initial analyses across the universities are promising.”
“The bar can be very, very low, perhaps because of the bums-onseats imperatives for universities to make sure that their seats are filled.”
Roger Moses
An improved situation would indeed be a windfall, because first-year rolls show no sign of dropping anytime soon. We live in a society where for many students, university isn’t an aspiration, it’s the default option. From her research into student motivation Meyer has discovered that, “a large number of the students say that their goal is university entrance … virtually 75% of them gave University entrance as their first choice.” Increasingly New Zealand is entering into a situation where the main barrier to university isn’t academic, its financial. “There’s still a lot of them trying to avoid a student debt, that seems to be the bigger stumbling block for them than NCEA,” says Prue Kelly. Moses also has his doubts, and thinks that, “The bar can be very, very low, perhaps because of the bums-onseats imperatives for universities to make sure that their seats are filled.” If we put the rhetoric of ‘mass-participation equals unquestionable good’ to one side it becomes apparent that there is the potential for students to arrive at university without any real interest or ability, which can be a waste of time and money for the institution and the students involved. “There can be almost an open-door policy,” says Moses, “that may well be bringing people into universities who ultimately are ill-suited to go there. … So the weeding out is then done at the end of the first year as opposed to at the end of the seventh form.”
University staff on the frontline of student enrolment are very tentative when asked to speculate about the potential changes in student aptitude this might imply. “That’s probably debatable,” says Harper, hesitantly. “You could probably say that it was a slight lowering of the standard to allow students to do tourism [a newly approved UE subject under NCEA], but you could also argue that it was something that they were interested in and it’s a valid subject, we teach tourism management at this university. So there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be getting credit.” There is, after all, supposedly very little difference between the previously mandated three Cs and the current credit allowance. The curriculum has stayed constant in the core subjects so a student who earns entrance under NCEA should have approximately the same set of skills and knowledge as a student who gained entrance under the prior system. And there’s even arguably a smoother cross-over: while Harper says that secondary and tertiary will always be “quite different, really,” she concedes that, “There’s some similarities, they learn the sorts of expressions like ‘credits’ and about totting up credits towards a qualification, [there’s] a little bit more similarity in terms of how you get a qualification and that sort of thing which is different from marks.” Even Moses agrees that “the move to a combination of internal and external … probably does prepare people quite well for university.” This is not, however, a reason to hold a NCEA celebration hootenanny just yet. While NCEA students may be more accustomed to the point juggling and time-management of university life than their predecessors that’s hardly the be all and end-all of academic life – it’s barely the beginning. And there are worrying signs that NCEA may be acting to steer students away from subjects traditionally seen as difficult, as well as undermining fundamental tenets of academic enquiry.
“We have regular visits from one school who comes here to do experiments,” explains Jim Pearce, a senior lecturer in the Chemistry department. “The comments from the teachers were that … they are finding that their numbers in chemistry are dropping, with the same teachers, same curriculum and the same methods of teaching. Students are not getting through the fifth form (Year 11) to the advanced levels, so that’s one effect that they’re seeing now.” He does note however that there has been one definite positive outcome of the new achievement-based system. Under the Bursary system a student could obtain an A grade, despite cocking-up in crucial areas, as long as they performed highly in other areas; NCEA removes this possibility by ensuring that students have to demonstrate competency in each particular area. Strengths can no longer camouflage weaknesses. “We’ve noticed that the general skills in titration [an analytical method] are better than they used to be,” says Pearce. “I guess they used to have a chance to get away with things, now if they want to get their credits they’ve actually got to achieve that standard. So at least in one small areas there’s been a plus.” NCEA’s highly modulated system ensures that students have to demonstrate proficiency one skill at a time. Regrettably this is not without its side effects. Gillian Turner is a senior lecturer in Physics who has been following the introduction of NCEA in an attempt to gauge its consequences at a university level. She believes that “the material that is covered is essentially the same but the assessment has a few unfortunate consequences for the students.” In the NCEA scheme, subjects are broken down into smaller compartments for assessment purposes; physics has been split into five such compartments, four of which are externally assessed. Turner feels that setting what are effectively four separate exams in the old three hour Bursary slot places undue stress on students. “When you go into a physics exam, it’s not simply regurgitation. There’s a lot of thinking needed, a lot of problem solving,” she explains. “You [need] a certain amount of time to get your mind around a problem, to conceptualise a problem, and so I feel that dividing what was a single three hour exam into four really does pressurize the students.” And this isn’t even the most worrying corollary of compartmentalization according to Turner. “The other unfortunate consequence of this is that it discourages students to make linkages from one subject to another,” she says. “They see ‘Electricity and Magnetism’ as ‘Electricity and Magnetism’ and they don’t see where results from Mechanics can feed into ‘Electricity and Magnetism’ for example. That’s something that I believe at university level is very, very important and its part and parcel of the scientific method, rather than just remembering.” While Turner doesn’t want to comment on other areas, its clear that this problem has the potential to be far more widespread than just Physics. When NCEA breaks subjects down into bite-size pieces it ignores the coherency of a body of learning and encourages students to think and learn in terms of dribs and drabs. As Turner explains, “[Students] are just not used to making linkages, so we have to introduce them to looking more widely at things.” This problem is only compounded by the new marking regime which is more prone than Bursary to award marks based on an ‘all-or-nothing’ approach. “It’s a stark contrast between the new and old style questions,” says Turner. “[In Bursary] you would give a mark, say out of ten, for a question and if a student got 80 percent of the way through the question but made a calculation mistake at the end [they] got an eight out of ten. But if you’ve got the wrong answer at the end of NCEA often they’ll get ‘not achieved’.” In subjects like Physics and Maths, where following the correct process can be just as important as attaining the correct answer, a ‘right-or-wrong’ marking schedule can potentially send students the wrong message. But what about Arts and Humanities then, where often the process of arriving at an answer isn’t just important, it’s the whole purpose?
According to a senior Humanties lecturer who has extensive dealings with first year students and won’t be named for his own good, the situation is dire. “The students coming in at the moment have got serious deficiencies and they’re certainly aware, in a sense, that they have these deficiencies,” he says. “Now to what extent that can be put at the door of NCEA I don’t know, all I know is that students are coming in and telling me that they have never had any emphasis placed on writing or analytical skills.” Like many others he is hesitant to lay the blame solely at the feet of NCEA, but is adamant that things have been getting steadily worse since the early 2000s. Whereas before there were some problems, the situation has become dramatically worse. He says, “what we’re all finding is most of the time in first-year classes, your job is to teach students basic writing, communication and analytical skills, full-stop. There’s this staggering deficiency. And to be honest when I was here in 2001 it was a problem that was nothing like it is now.” When pushed about the particular inadequacies afflicting students he easily rails off a list of shortcomings: “When they hand in their first 101 essay, they invariably have serious problems with regard to spelling, syntax, punctuation, paragraphing and more generally things like the whole notion of analysis, argumentation, exemplification.” This problem is not limited to the Humanities either. Harper says that, “Commerce [as well] have always been a little bit critical of the preparedness of students in terms of their writing.” Given these limitations, academics has been forced to alter the way they teach in order to ensure that they reach their students. “What we did with them, we actually reduced it to a series of technical exercises,” explains the Humanities lecturer. “We put the emphasis on the technical. For instance, the take-home exam questions all have to be insanely specific. You will do this, this, this, this you will provide references to at least two examples. You keep the whole thing very prescriptive, which grates a little bit, but in this case there was no choice.”
A lecturer recently arrived from overseas and teaching 100-level courses expressed concern about, “The ability of students to read, to write, the degree of curiosity, the willingness to be engaged, [and] the willingness to speak up in class.”
It would be unfair to hold the NCEA system to account for every single problem associated with University Entrance. “There have been complaints at universities for years well before NCEA came in, that the standards were dropping and that they had to run remedial classes,” admits Moses. “So while I haven’t been a huge NCEA fan I think it would be probably dishonest and unfair of me to blame any perception of a drop of standards just on NCEA.” This is corroborated by other sources, such as Pearce who says that while Chemistry courses have had to account for lack of student confidence with maths that shouldn’t be blamed on NCEA, “it’s been going on for many years.” As many are quick to point out, the same material is taught withNCEA as was with Bursary, its only the way that its assessed that has changed. Others argue that it’s too soon to begin determining the real impact of NCEA and more data is needed. And while this may be true, it is by no means a reason to be complacent, because it is becoming increasingly clear that many students attending Victoria and other New Zealand universities are not adequately prepared to be there. If you listen to some academics, the situation is only getting worse. A lecturer recently arrived from overseas and teaching 100-level courses expressed concern about, “The ability of students to read, to write, the degree of curiosity, the willingness to be engaged, [and] the willingness to speak up in class.” He believes that, when compared to their counterparts overseas, New Zealand’s first-year students come up very short. “To my mind I think that there is a sense of entitlement, that all students are entitled to go to university and therefore all students do go to university, or a majority of students go to university, but they are unprepared at a fundamental level. They don’t realise what university is about, what their role is in cultivating an academic culture that they themselves are a part of.” Clearly, something is wrong and we have passed up what was potentially our best chance to fix it. NCEA presented an opportunity to raise the bar, but instead we kept it even or perhaps lowered it even further; all the better to trip up unsuspecting students as their make their grand entrance into academic life.