Thursday, July 7, 2011

NZQA - making life even worse for Christchurch students since 2011

Even though I am a teacher, I do not believe in following rules simply because they exist. Conversely, even though I am not a ‘rules-person’, I do understand why we (that is, schools and society in general) have rules. However, I think it’s important to question the fairness of the rules and laws that exist, because not all rules and laws are fair, depending on whom they protect and whom they benefit. I am as eager as the next person for things to be fair. But when it comes to fairness, equality is not the same as equity. And I think this is something that is often not taken into consideration when rules are made. This concept is something that I think NZQA has no understanding of. This blog post will discuss the unfairness of NZQA’s recent decision to not make allowances for students sitting NCEA Levels 1-3 in Christchurch in 2011 by declining teacher requests to allow re-assessments for individual students in internal assessments. Sarcastic voice: Because, you know, a few massive earthquakes really isn’t that big a deal, doesn’t disadvantage Christchurch students in any way and therefore doesn’t warrant any exceptions…

NZQA is the body that sets and assesses all external assessments (exams) in New Zealand. They also manage the moderation of all internal assessments and set the rules around how internal assessments should be carried out in schools. Internal assessments are hardly run perfectly in schools (see my blog, two posts ago) and when a massive, destructive, deadly earthquake hits four weeks into term one of the school year, nothing is going to run perfectly. After losing three weeks of classes in February/April this year, secondary school teachers had to re-design courses and cut down the number of credits we offered our senior students, as teaching and learning time was lost and we simply could not cover the topics and assessments that we included in the original courses in the remaining time we had left.

Do I need to mention that early on in term two there was another couple of large earthquakes, and that we lost another week of teaching and learning time? In total, that’s a whole month of class time lost. And then there’s the destroyed schools and the site-sharing (I’ve also blogged about this previously). Site-sharing also means lost learning time, as periods have been shortened to accommodate two high schools using the premises that usually only one uses.

But the impact on students is much worse than that even. Many students lost more than just their school premises and resources and class time; they lost their home, their routines, their stability, their confidence, and in some cases, they lost people they knew and loved too. A significant number of the students that are attending site-sharing schools have been living in sub-standard conditions since February (no sewerage, minimal running water, constant power outages, roads like war-zones, spending over an hour travel time to get to school, leaving school in the dark etc). Some families moved away from Christchurch either temporarily or permanently - to Nelson, or Wellington, or Hamilton, or Auckland, or Dunedin. And you can’t blame them. It’s not pleasant living in a city that constantly shakes, a city with no CBD, and a city with schools sharing sites. Most families haven’t moved away though and their children continue to receive an education at the schools in Christchurch.

So, when secondary school teachers asked NZQA if they can relax the rules around internal re-assessments, I actually expected NZQA to say yes. The rule is that if a school (and usually, more specifically, a department) wishes to re-assess students in a Standard then all students must be offered the opportunity to sit the re-assessment. For example, the English department at School A teaches creative writing to Year 12 students in term one and then assesses them using Achievement Standard 2.1. For some reason many students under-perform, and so the school decides to offer a re-assessment opportunity for the entire cohort again in term three. This is because there were obvious gaps in the students’ writing skills and therefore they were unable to reach the Standard, and so the teachers go back and revise their teaching and fill in those gaps so the students are able to Achieve the Standard and consequently obtain University Entrance (which you get from NCEA Level 2 English). The idea, I guess, is that it’s not fair to offer some students a re-assessment opportunity but not others. I’m definitely not convinced by this reasoning, because it goes against the nature of standards-based assessment where you assess students when they are ready to be assessed (I’ve also examined this in a blog post…yikes, I discuss assessment a lot). Nonetheless, that’s just the way it is; but stupid rules are stupid rules and people are therefore going to question them.

To state the obvious, we are in a very different situation now to what we were in a year ago. Some students in Christchurch have been, relatively speaking, only minorly (why does this word not exist? ‘Majorly’ does, grrr) affected by the quakes – their houses are OK, they are OK, their families are OK, and apart from sharing school resources with another 1,500 students and putting up with the constant shakes, their lives have been fairly normal. Many of these students have continued to work hard on their studies and have Achieved credits from numerous internal assessments, despite the constant disruption. On the other hand, others have experienced some really distressing stuff that has undoubtedly had a huge impact on their ability to learn and to perform under pressure. (Teachers are in the same boat in that respect.) So, why, in a shortened year, in which student learning and achievement has been so severely affected in Christchurch, would we impose a re-assessment on an entire group of students? Why would we do that to them? And why would we do that to ourselves, as teachers? It would be cruel and stressful. Oh, and it’s just not actually possible in a site-sharing school that’s already had to cut learning and assessment time.

So, the question posed to NZQA (and it’s a damn good question) is: Why can’t we simply re-assess those students who need to be re-assessed?

NZQA denied requests by schools to allow re-assessment opportunities for individual students. And it makes my blood boil.

If you think about who will need to be re-assessed, it is most likely to be students who are on the cusp of passing NCEA Level 1, 2 or 3. It’s also quite likely to be students who suffered after the February and June quakes. It could well be a student who Not Achieved that 2.1 assessment, when it fact they should have easily Achieved, had things not gone awry via tectonic plate movement. Those students still need University Entrance. An even more specific example of a student like this might be: Student A – their family moved out of their house soon after 22 February because living in a house with no water and no sewerage was just not doable. They spent five weeks in Auckland before their family could find new accommodation in Christchurch. Another example might be: Student B lost a family member in the February quake and has had counselling three times a week for the last 6 months to help them through the trauma, thus further affecting their learning time and their assessment results.

And the same goes for students who wish to leave school. I know Anne Tolley expects all students to stay until the end of Year 12 and gain Level 2 NCEA but the system just doesn’t work for everyone and some students really struggle through Level 1 NCEA in Year 11. They then leave school and complete a practical course – like carpentry, or hairdressing - in a tertiary institution. Why should Student C, who is not particularly academically inclined and really just wants and needs to be out doing something meaningful to them, be denied the right to gain NCEA Level 1 when they have worked hard all year, despite the constant disruptions, and they are sitting on 77 credits – that’s only 3 credits away from attaining Level 1? How would letting Student C re-sit an assessment actually disadvantage Student D, who gained Level 1 with a total of 95 credits?

What is so unfair about supporting students to obtain the qualifications that they need, in a year that has proven to be most challenging?

Some people will argue that school is not everything – that, in fact, it doesn’t matter how well you did at school, that it’s not that important and it doesn’t define your life. I would say that that is true, to a certain extent. I was a pretty average student at high school, and my rather average grades have not held me back from what I’ve wanted to do. But a student who misses out on gaining NCEA Level 2 because of a natural disaster should not be held back and made to repeat a Level 2 course when they should be working through Level 3 in preparation for the numbers-restricted Creative Writing course they want to do the following year at University. Likewise, why would we want to keep students like Student C even longer in school than we have to, when they could re-sit an assessment they Not Achieved earlier in the year, Achieve the Standard, gain NCEA Level 1 and then go out into the big wide world? Do we want students to gain qualifications or not?!? You’d think not, from NZQA’s actions.

So, that’s a big BOOOOOOOOO to NZQA from me (and from many other teachers in Christchurch, I suspect). ‘Equality’ in the eyes of NZQA is not going to result in fair or equitable outcomes for the secondary students of this city. Our students have been, and will continue to be, disadvantaged by the situation here. And NZQA needs to get off it’s rule-making bottom, acquire some empathy and support the students and teachers of Christchurch.

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