Friday, May 13, 2011

What really pisses me off about NCEA

It’s only 2 weeks into the term and I am exhausted. Parent-teacher interviews in the middle of the week didn’t help and I’ve got more to go next week, plus an open night mid-term and then reports towards the end of term. But it’s not the workload or the tiredness that plunged me into (minor) depression today. No...it was assessment that did that.

NCEA is a pig. Don’t get me wrong - School C, 6th Form Certificate and Bursary were pigs too. School C and Bursary were classist pigs that benefited the academic students from higher socio-economic backgrounds and 6th form Certificate was a pig that benefited no-one, as far as I can tell…well, it possibly benefited students at schools who got ridiculously high School C marks the year before (again, most likely to be the students from more well-off families and/or schools), but I wouldn’t know as I didn’t go to such a school, and I’ve never assessed students using that ridiculous system, thankfully. NB: I usually defend NCEA as it’s definitely more democratic that the old system and I think it has the potential to actually be useful. But that potential is yet to be fulfilled, and I’m becoming more and more cynical in my views; I’m worried that we are never going to use NCEA like we should. Yes, there are many reasons to dislike NCEA – the workload for both students and teachers, and the rather vague marking schedules in my subject area, English, are just two very obvious examples. But instead, I’d like to evaluate our use of NCEA in relation to its purpose.

The purpose of standards-based assessment like NCEA is that the students are assessed when they are ready to be assessed in whatever areas of whatever subjects they are taking. Once they meet the Standard, this means that they have proven that they have certain skills at a certain level in that subject, and then they continue to build on these skills and work towards the next Standard. However long it takes them to do this is fine, because we all learn in different ways and at different speeds. So, standards-based assessment means that we can (could) actually have more freedom in creating teaching and assessment programmes to suit students’ needs, learning styles, abilities and interests.

But instead, we (and by ‘we’ I mean teachers, management and schools) lump a whole bunch of kids who are all roughly the same age into generic courses and make them all sit the same assessment at the same time. A fifteen and a half year old student who is reading and writing at curriculum level 6 sits the exact same NCEA Level 1 assessments as the fifteen and a half year old student who is reading and writing at curriculum level 4-5. Another example is: a seventeen and a half year old student who moved to New Zealand from a non-English speaking country four years ago and has good, but not excellent, English language skills sits the same NCEA Level 3 assessment as a seventeen and a half year old student who has lived their whole life in New Zealand and has an excellent command of the English language (I am well aware that many New Zealand students do not have an excellence command of the English language, but this is an example for the sake of my argument, and it’s a real one).

Now, imagine teaching a class of 25 students with a wide cross-section of students in terms of English language proficiency, ability and motivation. Imagine marking their NCEA assessment work. And now imagine handing it back to them. You can’t? Well, this is what it’s like for me: I must admit, I do really enjoy reading my students’ assessment work – they have cool ideas and often amusing and/or heartening opinions and it’s great to see what they’ve learned. But I hate marking their work. I hate having to grade it. NOT ACHIEVED, ACHIEVED, MERIT or EXCELLENCE. It seems so clinical, so harsh and, ultimately, so unhelpful. However, the bit I dread the most is the handing-it-back-to-the-students bit. I don’t want my students to feel bad. I don’t want to shatter their confidence. I don’t want to send them the message that, “it’s not good enough”, because I know that they tried their very best and what they did was indeed good enough for them. But I feel like this is what I do, no matter how carefully and respectfully I try to return their assessments to them. NCEA makes me a cruel, confidence-shattering, deliverer-of-bad-news. And that is super depressing.

I guess some might argue that at least all the students are on an “even-playing field” or something (disregarding social and economic inequality, of course). But wait… there’s more; did you know that there are huge variations between schools in the ways they run NCEA assessments? For example, once school in Auckland may give students four periods in which to draft, craft and edit a piece of creative writing in English. Then the students are allowed to take the work home and type it up on their computer and bring it back with their draft (to ensure authenticity). Sounds OK? Yup (it sounds horrid, I know, but it could be worse…wait for it…). In comparison, a school in Wellington might give students five periods in which to draft, craft, edit and publish a piece of work, but without the use of a computer. These students then get a ‘resub’ period in which they can fix up any errors that they can find in their work. Finally, a school in Christchurch gives students three periods in which to draft, craft, edit and publish a piece of work without a computer with no ‘resub’ period. Yes, some schools are undoubtedly eviler (heh) when it comes to assessment conditions for students, just like some teachers are much meaner to their students than others. Personally, I’d rather be a student in that Auckland school, or even the Wellington school, than the Christchurch one. So, assessment procedures and conditions are ultimately set by the school, which allows some flexibility (although it obviously means no consistency across the country).

I believe that New Zealand schools are essentially setting some kids up for failure via NCEA. And each school gets to do that in whichever way they like – through the courses they offer, through the assessment conditions they allow, or through a nasty combination of the two.

Some of my suggested solutions are:

  • Schools need to create more courses within subjects to cater for the wide variety of abilities and interests amongst students. Differentiation is the key, not just in terms of teaching but also with regard to assessing.
  • Students should be allowed to take more than one year to gain any Level of NCEA if that is what they need.
  • We need to stop using NCEA like it is School C or Bursary. Those days are gone, and we should be thankful for that. (I still don’t know why the hell I only got 10/20 on my Close Reading answers in Bursary English, grrr.)

I’m sure I’ll think of more ways to fix this problem (for example, we could ditch all summative assessment completely and simply do formative assessment - after all, assessment should be about helping students to improve and grow, not collect grades and credits...I'd love that but I know 99% of teachers and parents wouldn't agree). But for now, in summary, I’ll just say: let’s use NCEA like it should be used!

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