Where did NCEA come from?

In the article below, originally published in QANews # 38, June 2001, Bill Lennox looks at where the NCEA comes from and the impact of 34 years of "advocacy" and "evolution".

There was a lot of debate in the mid-nineties around whether the National Qualifications Framework, especially as it was supposed to affect schools, was "evolutionary" or "revolutionary". I didn't know enough about history to mount the argument that revolutions happen when evolution has been tried and thwarted, or at least reached its limit.

It seemed to me that the Framework was offering teachers the sort of system they had been calling for throughout my 23 years in the classroom. Some teachers didn't recognise that and others didn't want a solution thrust upon them.

In 1996 I completed (under the supervision of Cedric Hall) a research paper towards a Victoria University Master of Education. My topic was school assessment for the National Qualifications Framework and the extent to which "advocacy" and "evolution" had led to the Framework.

In particular, I looked at internal assessment and assessment against standards. I investigated the extent to which the Framework (which then consisted entirely of internally assessed unit standards) was the result of advocacy and evolution, rather than an unheralded overnight change.

I was able to establish a clear continuum in both advocacy and systems changes that led logically to the Framework. But there was one exception: I could find no continuum that led to the single level of performance model used in unit standards. Since then, of course, achievement standards for the NCEA have introduced graded standards. The continuum is restored.

My research paper is available to anyone who wants the detail, but below are listed the most significant signals along the journey that has taken us to the NCEA.

Advocacy and change in national school assessment

1934 School Certificate (SC) is introduced
1945 SC becomes the only form 5 award, awarded overall for results in English and best three other subjects
1967 SC awarded in single subjects only. Since 1967 there has been no such thing as a nationally recognised overall "pass" in SC
1969 Jack Shallcrass calls for SC to be abolished, largely because it imposes one course and one examination on all, regardless of ability
1969 Education in Charge (PPTA) calls for agreed criteria, clearly stated learning objectives and profile reporting instead of single figure results
1972 Warwick Elley and Ian Livingstone discuss the abolition (or at least partial internal assessment) of SC and University Entrance, and the need for specified learning outcomes
1974 Report on the nation-wide Educational Development Conference proposes that SC be phased out and replaced by moderated teacher assessments, reporting on "levels of attainment" in each subject. In 1974 the fully internally assessed option for SC Art and Mathematics were introduced. Similar schemes were introduced in subsequent years for Science and English (1976) and Workshop Technology (1979). These options remain today
1981 New Zealand Employers Federation booklet calls for full internal assessment of SC, assessment against standards, results as personal profiles and the removal of the distinction between so-called "academic" and "vocational" courses
1981 PPTA Journal contains a series of articles on assessment. Most writers (especially David Eddy) promote enhanced internal assessment and the recognition of a wider range of skills and abilities
1982 Bursaries English examination marking schedule uses written criteria for assessing literature essays. Over the next 20 years most marking schedules for School Certificate and Bursaries examinations introduce written criteria. In effect, student work is assessed against criteria (a form of standards) leading to the allocation of grades; then marks are allocated, generally without the use of criteria
1983 Alison Gilmore (NZCER) discusses ways of moderating teacher assessments, including inspection, consensus and "group standards" as alternatives to statistical moderation
1985 Warwick Elley (in PPTA Journal) describes our "sluggish advance towards internal assessment" and points out that few comparable countries have national examinations at all three levels. Elley promotes greater school flexibility in organising learning and sees the abolition of ranking and descriptions of what students "can do" as "a long-term ideal"
1985 Interim report of the Committee of Inquiry into Curriculum, Assessment and Qualifications in Forms 5 to 7 leads to the immediate abolition of the University Entrance examination and its replacement with fully internally assessed Sixth Form Certificate (SFC), statistically moderated as proposed by Elley and Livingstone in 1972. (SFC had been in place alongside UE since 1969.) For the next 18 years, until the introduction of NCEA level 2 examinations in 2003, New Zealand has two examinations for senior school students
1986 Learning and Achieving (the full report of the 1985 Committee of Inquiry) calls for far-sighted reforms. This is a key document in the evolution of assessment and qualifications in this country. Overall, the report says, the move should be to enhanced school flexibility, enhanced internal assessment, and assessment against criteria. The report proposes:
  • For form 5: Full internal assessment using standards at three levels and leading to profile reporting. Schools should be able to design their own courses
  • A similar system for form 6
  • For form 7: An achievement based system using five levels of achievement, partially internally assessed
1986 Department of Education commences form 6 achievement based assessment (ABA) trials. Grade-related criteria are developed (at 4 or 5 levels) in the various aspects of each subject and trials held to investigate ways of moderating teacher assessments.This was an attempt to remove the predetermined national distribution of Sixth Form Certificate grades (where 4% of all candidates get grade 1) and statistical moderation of teacher judgements (using the previous year's SC results). In essence, the aim was to attach meaning to SFC grades. The trials ran until 1988 and were discontinued when more radical qualifications and assessment reform was signalled by the 1988 Hawke Report, in effect leading directly to the establishment of NZQA and the NQF.Many schools continued to use grade-related criteria in assessing for Sixth Form Certificate and the practice is common today. This creates confusion and frustration when schools have to reconcile their standards based results with the national norm-referenced structure
1989 The Project ABLE report confirmed the directions of Learning and Achieving and added "SC has largely outlived its usefulness". The report called for a standards based approach and a single cumulative national certificate for school learners

By 1990 the writing was on the wall. But little of it was legible. Even at the end of that decade much remained unfulfilled, despite three dramatic developments of the nineties:

  • The national curriculum that was introduced for schools was based squarely on written descriptions of learning outcomes for the separate aspects of each subject.
  • For the first time, all secondary qualifications were administered by one government agency, the New Zealand Qualifications Authority.
  • The National Qualifications Framework had a demonstrable impact, especially in schools that were trying to introduce more varied and flexible learning in response to increased senior school retention rates.

But some of the evolution and advocacy had been absorbed into the system. There was full or partial internal assessment in about two thirds of School Certificate and Bursaries subjects. Many examination prescriptions described outcomes and objectives, rather than just content.

In 1998, when government policy was being finalised, NCEA was described by some as a way out of the so-called "dual system": unit standards and the traditional examination based awards. Schools could offer either or both.

Of course, it was not a "system" at all. It was a discordant medley resulting from years of uncoordinated and unresolved incremental change. Government's intention throughout the nineties had been to remove the examination-based system once the Framework was in place. (In 1993 the aim was to base all national schools qualifications on unit standards by 1997.)

The NCEA can be seen as a blend of the Framework and the traditional examination based awards. Most see it as a compromise. But it is also a sensible and inevitable product of the previous 30 years.

One thing that officials, politicians, principals and teachers do agree on is that the NCEA will change over time. Perhaps an understanding of the continuum that brought us, however haltingly, to the NCEA will make it clear where we should be going over the next few years.

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