NCEA Change Package - it's not just the primary principals who should be concerned!

Today we have seen a number of news outlets reporting about Primary Principal's concern about NCEA literacy and numeracy potentially being assessed as early as Year Seven. I heartily agree that this is a very real concern. One of many. Earlier this year I pulled together what I see as a range of serious issues with the NCEA Change Package as it stands at the moment.

I feel confident that the review of achievement standards taking place at the moment should and will address many, if not all, of these concerns. I do however think we all need to look closely at the recommended changes as there is a very real risk that not doing so might mean we don't respond to potential issues until it is too late.

Ultimately, I am worried that our collective silence about these issues may in fact be mistaken for acceptance or even endorsement.

If you haven't already, please do take the time to read up on the NCEA Change Package here:

My key concerns are outlined below:

From the NCEA Review Background (2018):
NCEA was introduced because of dissatisfaction with the previous system. Many learners left school with no qualifications or qualifications that did not recognise all of their learning, due to:
  • The heavy focus on external assessment (especially exams)
  • The limited number of subjects assessed, which limited what was offered in schools
  • Success being determined to some extent by a belief that some subjects were more ‘worthy’ than others, with marks scaled accordingly
  • Pass rates being set for each subject, which meant students could pass or fail based on how others performed, not their own skills or knowledge.

NCEA was established as a flexible, inclusive model and has become one of the most open and transparent school qualification systems in the world. Instead of passing and failing a set percentage, any learner who demonstrates that they have met the standard succeeds.

This statement from the NCEA Review Background (2018) highlights just how much the NCEA Change Package (2019) is a departure from concerns raised only last year. Whilst the ‘Big Opportunities’ felt like a courageous step forward, the NCEA Change Package feels like, as a whole, a massive step back, an opportunity lost.

One of the guiding principles of the NCEA review was wellbeing. In the background document it talked about the damage that overassessment has done.

Many learners are achieving upwards of 120 credits in each year of NCEA, far more than the 60 to 80 credits they need. Some use this to demonstrate their abilities and as a source of motivation. In other cases, attempting more credits than needed builds a safety net to ensure they achieve an NCEA. But a relentless focus on credits and reassessment opportunities can result in pressure, stress, and anxiety, particularly when internal assessments run near continuously throughout a year. This can have a real, negative impact on how learners experience education and their overall health.

The NCEA Change Package had an incredible opportunity to provide courageous thought leadership that was clearly guided by a moral purpose and could have put the wellbeing of the student at the heart of the new package design. Instead we have a new model of NCEA on the table that has seen absolutely no reduction of credits at any level (if we include Literacy and Numeracy as a pathway into Level One) and instead of reducing the overall number of years that students focus on NCEA it has extended it to SEVEN years if they are to start their NCEA journey in Year Seven. ERO highlighted this very issue in the report Wellbeing for Young People’s Success at Secondary Schools (2015). Recommending that schools “review their assessment programme, in particular the number of credits available for each year, using the intent of NCEA”. We are now presented with a NCEA Change Package that states “Guidance will be introduced indicating that most students should attempt no more than 120 credits at Level 1 and 2, and 100 credits at Level 3.” Not only is this seemingly contradicting your own guiding principle, it is totally contradicticting a recommendation made by a national level evidence-based report which squarely placed over-assessment as the main threat to student wellbeing. Where is the courage, care and thought-leadership of a government who cares about wellbeing so much they have put it as the central principle of our national budget?

In the NCEA Review Background document you talk about how NCEA’s openness and flexibility.

While NCEA’s openness and flexibility promote inclusiveness, it can also make it hard for every learner to access diverse and coherent courses and meaningful personalisation. At times, it can permit generic approaches to course and programme design, which don’t prepare all learners for their next steps. These approaches can particularly disadvantage our most vulnerable learners.

Whilst it is stated that NCEA’s flexibility can also risk permitting “generic approaches to course and programme design”, you have now introduced large inflexible standards with only four standards per subject which will undoubtedly encourage increasingly generic course design. We suspect that the new standard design is a means of ensuring that students are forced to experience broader coverage within each subject? However, as all subjects and standards ultimately remain optional we are not sure such an approach is actually addressing the concern at hand. It would seem, at least from what we see here, a misguided “simple solution” to the complex problem of equitable delivery of a broad curriculum.

In the NCEA Review Background you talk about valuing all quality pathways.

Valuing all quality pathways
Many people hold the perception that not all pathways within the NCEA system are equal – particularly that courses based on unit standards are less valued than those based on achievement standards. NCEA should give learners, employers, and educators confidence that a diverse range of quality pathways are available.

However, in establishing what could become an even greater source of division with the introduction of the concept of “vocational excellence”. Surely excellence is excellence, vocational or otherwise. Again, this appears to be an overly simplistic solution to a complex problem - that of the perceived lesser value of the vocational pathway. Surely segregation by separate labelling will only further reinforce its otherness?

The NCEA Review Background also highlighted the value of the responsiveness of the current framework.

A stronger NCEA, which addresses this issue and is more responsive to the needs of those who use it, could support improved learner and teacher wellbeing, drive improvements in equitable access to success, and make space for high-quality teaching.

It does therefore seem that the recommended changes are counterintuitive in moving to larger standards, and therefore less responsive, and what will undoubtedly become a less personalisable NCEA.

In closing, the NCEA Change Package (2019) presents the following concerns:
  • In 2018 we were presented with innovative, future focused opportunities that we were given the opportunity to feedback on. In 2019 we have been presented with a very very different NCEA Change Package that we do not have the opportunity to provide feedback on.
  • It is clear that the latter document was the direct result of the intervention of the coalition of Principals who were upset by the innovations presented in the “big opportunities”. This resulted in the Professional Advisory Group being formed, the membership of which was limited to a group of educators who came from schools delivering relatively traditional approaches to NCEA thereby limiting the opportunity for new recommendations being “future-proofed”.
  • The current system is flexible and future-focused. We are only just making good use of flexibility and ability to contextualise the many standards we have available. It feels like we are about to take a backwards step just as we are realising the potential of the current NCEA framework.
  • The NCEA Change Package represents a missed opportunity to genuinely reduce credits and the associated stress and anxiety. We have increased and expanded the focus on high stakes assessment, starting as early as Year Seven, meaning students will be focusing on NCEA for seven years (more than half) of their school life.
The full document that this post came from can be read here.


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