Recently the debate around the National Certificate of Educational Achievement restarted. I saw a suggestion that caught my eye, which suggested completely abolishing N.C.E.A. The system that was implemented in New Zealand high schools by the Government of Prime Minister Helen Clark is said to favour girls over boys, and is allegedly a failure. Given that the author has some concerns of his own, it is worthwhile revisiting an at times quite controversial assessment regime. In doing so, we need to understand the basics of the system.
What is the National Certificate of Educational Achievement?
The National Certificate of Educational Achievement is a three stage (Years 11-13)assessment regime that replaced School Certificate, Sixth Form Certificate and University Bursary from about 2001. It was rolled out over three years. Students have to earn a certain number of credits per course to pass. It uses Unit Standards, which are a credit based concept where a student has set criteria that they have to meet in each to be granted the Unit Standard.
What do proponents of the N.C.E.A. regime say?
N.C.E.A. has its backers and I acknowledge some of the points that they have are valid.
N.C.E.A. replaced a scheme that had a scaling method that was designed to ensure at least some students failed, whether or not they were actually deserving of it. In my political history class we had a mixture of Unit Standards and other assessments. Although I think history is not an appropriate subject to run these in, I actually did quite well in the Unit Standards.
I was also unable to see how my Tourism I and II courses could be assessed through exams and assignments. This was reinforced by conversations I had with younger friends and relatives some time ago where they pointed out how it had benefitted them. Some struggled with the format of exams, but for reasons they did not understand, seemed to do okay with assignment and test work. Whilst the simple pass/fail regime or Not Yet Competent (N.Y.C.) was somewhat off putting, the opportunities to revisit them and improve to a pass, were there. Most I passed on the first try.
What do critics of the N.C.E.A. regime say?
I will be honest from the outset. I am a critic for several reasons. I seriously hope though that it has changed substantially since I played with it in 1996-1999, at Burnside High. If not, the following comments are worth noting. My own personal experience of the old system it replaced was that it had numerous redeeming features that were lost when N.C.E.A. started. One of those features was students having an idea of how they performed – did they get an outstanding pass, a bare minimal pass or were they a catastrophic failure. With the N.C.E.A. concept one simply passed or failed initially. I found that quite off putting. I also found that there were some subjects where it was probably suited to the nature of the subject – mainly the traditional ones such as history, geography, English, science, mathematics. There were others such as Tourism which it could have worked on.
My own grades had little to do with whether the system worked or not and more to do with the fact that I tended to be a minimalist in terms of study. I did all the class work, and nearly all the homework, but when it came to studying for exams and tests, I tended to zone out, and despite what was said above, my marks reflected the zoning out more than they reflected a bung system. I do not think one can blame the system for that.
My own assessment is that no, N.C.E.A. does not work. However, I do not totally support winding back the clock to when Unit Standards first started being rolled out. If the Unit Standards can give some sort of success measure, perhaps by providing ___ credits per course, of which ___ must be attained to pass the course, then perhaps it could continue on courses such as tourism.
If I were revisiting the assessment regime for High School students I would be looking at requiring standardized external exams for all, but each would have an internally assessed component devised by the school and submitted to the New Zealand Qualifications Authority for approval. These would be common courses such as the ones I have already described. Another change that I would make would be to significantly improve scholarship opportunities. A B-Grade Scholarship might for example pay half of the fees for a student, whilst an A-Grade scholarship would pay all the course fees.