NCEA - we need to review our mindset first

On Friday I attended a NZQA Principal's Nominee (PN) Seminar that happens every year. Based on past experience I had braced myself for messaging that always felt completely at odds with the messages I had heard from NZQA whilst involved with their Future State Brainstorming Group. In the past I always felt I heard (from the top) a very genuine desire for schools to get on and innovate and really test the capacity for NCEA to be genuinely personalised to meet the needs of students. I would then head along to a PN Seminar and feel like that message had been lost, with PNs being encouraged to maintain relative conservative gatekeeping habits that so often meant schools are no where near as creative and responsive as they might (and should) be. Last Friday was different. For the first time I got the sense that NZQA was challenging PNs to evolve and adapt their practice. Hoorah!

However what did still concern me was the prevailing mindset of the room. When asked to identify barriers for changing practice we still heard the tried and true excuses for retaining the status quo. The community wouldn't cope with us removing Level One. The community doesn't want fewer standards. The students don't value what isn't assessed. Students love exams. Parents love exams. What about our Metro magazine results and league tables? We don't want to narrow the curriculum. Low performing students need Level One to have a sense of success. And so it went on.

The more we discussed perceived barriers it was clear that so many deeply embedded mental models were at play. Assessment seemed to equate to learning with standards a proxy for learning objectives and any real curriculum design. NCEA was the main or possibly the only measure of student success. And NCEA was clearly being used as both a carrot and a stick as it was seen as a way for students to value learning and the source of motivation. Schools were still thinking in siloed subjects and somehow seeing exams as more valuable than internal assessment (also this was less so than in the past). So much value was placed on the perception of outsiders and assumptions about what the community, board, teachers and students think and feel. Student wellbeing and creativity was completely AWOL as drivers in any of the discussions I was privy to. Another concern was that these we all perceived as very real concrete "barriers" which painted them as both permanent and insurmountable. This is the part our first mindset we need to address. They are not barriers. They are simply challenges we need to hurry up and overcome.

Of course schools are evolving, there was evidence that all schools were looking to address credit farming by capping credits in each subject. It was alarming though that for several schools, the way to address the stress of Level One was by bringing assessments into Year 10?! What's driving this? Our students are stressed by the level of high stakes assessment in Year 11, I know what we can do, let's assess them earlier and for longer, let's stretch out NCEA to three and a half or four years rather than three! Or is it that they think Year 10s need to be motivated by some good old fashioned high stakes assessment? I'm not sure which I find more disturbing. Actually I do know what I find more disturbing, schools that insist on Year 9s engaging in faux high stakes assessments and exams in preparation for said stretching out of NCEA - that will definitely foster a love of learning! When we know the idea of high stakes end of year exams are on the way out, why on earth would we bother. And don't even try and convince me it's about practice. I simply call bullsh*t on that one.

At this point I want to point out that I am not attacking the PNs. They are merely a proxy, upholding and reinforcing a school wide mindset, that is ultimately the responsibility of the school leaders. Although I do think school leaders need to to check the messaging of their PNs as I have seen many examples of NCEA gatekeeping practices that are odds with the school's supposed vision and values.

I guess what I am getting at is that NCEA is already incredibly flexible and designed to be a veritable smorgasbord of standards that can be combined and curated, mixed and multi-levelled to respond to the the strengths, interests and needs of our learners. NZQA are already encouraging schools to assess less and focus less on Level One. For the most part NCEA and NZQA is not the problem. The problem lies in what see as our drivers for curriculum and assessment design and actually the lack of real "design" at all. Schools, for the most part, have been sleep walking through NCEA, having adopted it, for the most part, as a straightforward replacement for School Certificate, Sixth Form Certificate and Bursary. And I'm not blaming teachers for this. Teachers are bloody busy and stretched in all directions and NCEA was introduced so quickly after the New Zealand Curriculum that we never did have the chance to pull apart the richness of that guiding document before we were forced to refocus on assessment and getting our head around NCEA. My worry is that a high level NCEA review may not address the very real issue of mindset and the perception that NCEA is far less flexible than it really is.

When I spoke up about the different approaches we have at Hobsoville Point Secondary School, our ideas were quickly dismissed because we we were a "new school", with new buildings and new staff. I can reassure you our teachers, deep down came with the same mindset as every other educator. Yes, we could "hand pick" the more creative ones, but all of us come from normal secondary schools from around the country. Our community is as conservative as any. And the last time I checked the building is really not the main driver of our curriculum or assessment design, although it does enable larger integrated classes (note to Macleans College please don't dismiss the power of this, flexible teaching spaces are awesome!). But the advantage I do recognise that we did have, is that we have a courageous school leader who was determined to put the needs of our learners first. And he appointed a leadership team who he believed supported this AND we were given the gift of time to de-school and research how we wanted our schooling experience to be.

I guess my point I am getting to is this. An NCEA Review will come to nothing if the mindsets, toolsets, skillsets, and the moral purpose and courage levels of our school leaders remain the same.

Yes you might be able to make structural changes to NCEA so that the tail effectively wags the dog (i.e. Level One gets removed and exams stop being the source of course endorsement and internal assessments are supported by national markers so we can "trust" them), but real change won't happen until we see leaders who are genuinely addressing student wellbeing and the very real creative needs of our 21st century learners. Will the NCEA or any review address that?

I could go on about what I see as fulling these needs, but I have already waffled on enough. You can check out some ideas here:

Future Focused Assessment - imagine if schools did no high stakes assessment...
Update on NCEA at HPSS (and introducing the HPSS Qualification Programme)

What is the biggest challenge currently facing education in New Zealand? 

From Maurie:

Deep Learning and Well-being (students and staff): A Way Forward for NCEA?

An read this ERO report f any doubt about why our assessment practice must change.

Wellbeing for Young People's Success at Secondary School (February 2015) : 19/02/2015


  1. Great post Claire, I was just reflecting that it’s a problem of leadership when I got to the paragraph in leadership!

    As someone who hasn't taught NCEA but has taught secondary in the UK, the vision of NCEA certainly appeals but the practice in reality doesn't appear to light many students up.

    Everything flows from mindset, leaders have the power to magnify this or minify, innovate or disrupt... I fear that the 'disrupt' is somewhat lacking.

  2. Hear, hear. I have just completed an essay for a Masters paper on assessment and, after reading widely, this is the conclusion that I came to.

    Currently assessment dominates many courses - a unit is about studying to achieve a standard. A wise man once articulated that : Rich teaching and learning environments cede artifacts that can be assessed - the learning should dominate. A project of interest could cede artifacts that would show evidence of a range of achievement standards - collaboration, conversations, creativity, flexibility - all with the student at the centre.
    I worry that assessment and the rules and regulations remain the barrier. The curriculum is very clear on the skills that we are to develop - not to assess (e.g. key competencies) - to encourage our students to be confident, self-managing, independent and life-long learners. However, in my experience, perceived NCEA regulations seem to trump these.

    I, too, hope that the current review of NCEA and the upcoming wider community consultation by the Government, will open the conversations that might break down some of the barriers.

  3. Some very thought-provoking comments Claire. My hunch is that if Level 1 is removed, some schools will just bring a whole lot of L2 standards into Year 11 (as they currently do in Year 10) and "accelerate" their students more, so they will then end up harvesting heaps of L2 credits, pretty much defeating the purpose of the review.

  4. Love it Claire. Totally agree with you. We just need school leaders to have the courage to say enough - let's focus on what matters. Learning.

  5. Thanks for articulating that just because we have a very versatile baby, it's counterproductive if we only use them to filter the bathwater!

  6. The whole problem of having assessment driven schools is that we really never implemented the 2007 NZ Curriculum. The planned teacher engagement programme never occurred since funding was not available. By default school leaders simply substituted assessment as the driving focus. Now we have a real opportunity to re-develop .the NZ Curriculum and including all that we have realised and started to practise about innovation. Please can we stop the NCEA review and look at the paradigm shifts that have occurred in education and real life. Then we can look at curriculum, student needs and redevelop curriculum that leads to appropriate assessment.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

SPANZ - in a land of plenty (men) and an opportunity for women

Why need to close the digital divide in our schools - now!

The kids are alright... and they'll be even better if we actually start planning for a new normal.