Nga Puna O Waiorea

What parents should know about the New Zealand assessment and qualifications system

The recent promotion of overseas examination systems like Cambridge through the media by a small yet vocal interest sector has clearly had the effect of causing concern in the community and undermining public confidence in NCEA. It is important that parents understand the reasons the national qualification (NCEA) is supported by Western Springs College and the vast majority of NZ secondary schools.

A feature of our modern New Zealand education system, which is rated in the top echelon internationally, is its integrated approach to curriculum, pedagogy and assessment. What we teach and learn (curriculum), how this is taught and learned (pedagogy), and how we identify what has been learned (assessment and reporting) are all highly interdependent. NCEA is a national assessment and qualification system which is synchronised with the New Zealand Curriculum and with the significant changes in modern teaching practice which have been and are taking place in classrooms in most New Zealand schools.

NCEA is a qualification which is assessed in ways which recognise a wide range of knowledge, skills and abilities
We need an assessment and qualifications system which is geared to our modern curriculum, a qualifications system that uses methods of assessment which are matched to the knowledge, skills and abilities our leavers need to have acquired by the time they leave secondary school.

NCEA is based on the premise that the emphasis in the last century on examining lower order thinking such as memorising and recalling information is no longer relevant. Rote learning and regurgitating information have been overtaken by an emphasis on the ability to process, analyse and evaluate information in a manner which demonstrates clear understanding of concepts and ideas. It has become increasingly important to be able to assess and give recognition to research and oral communication skills.

It is not possible to adequately assess these and other production and performance skills in an external examination. For these reasons NCEA uses a combination of rigorously moderated internal assessment and external examinations.

NCEA is an assessment system which recognises the changed nature of modern teaching and learning
Assessment methods must synchronise with the pedagogies - ways of teaching and learning - which research evidence has shown to be effective. There has been a revolution in teaching practice in recent years. Teachers have increasingly adopted more effective approaches to teaching and learning such as student-centered learning and learning through inquiry. .

The WSC Education Review Office report opens with the statement, "Students at Western Springs College are highly engaged in learning." (November, 2010, page 1) Visitors to our classrooms are able to observe high levels of creative learning. Students are actively involved in planning investigations or designing enquiries, experimenting with or finding solutions to problems, processing information, interacting with peers, teaching others, using technologies, critiquing work in progress and finished products, performing, presenting outcomes and much more.

A notable feature of NCEA's adaptability has been the way teachers have been able to design assessment activities involving the use of ICTs (information and communication technologies) to research information, record and process data, and present findings.

Again, it is not possible to adequately assess these and other skills in an external examination. Appropriately, the nature of the learning determines the use of internal assessment and/or external examinations.

NCEA allows teachers the flexibility to differentiate among students and to design courses both within and across subjects which meet students' individual needs.
Students are able to have courses tailored to recognise their strengths and also to cater for areas of relative weakness. NCEA facilitates accelerated learning for able students by enabling them to study multilevel courses. The same approach benefits students who need a slower pace and more time to consolidate their learning.

Accordingly, teachers may provide a course with fewer standards for students who have achieved at a lower level in a particular subject; students who have considerable strengths in that subject may study more standards at a higher level. For example, in Mathematics a student may not be able to achieve in algebra, but may be capable of attaining Merit in measurement, statistics and probability. The modular nature of NCEA allows that student to continue to progress in her/his areas of proficiency and to repeat or invest more time in areas requiring further development. In Music a student may be advanced in the playing of an instrument and have the opportunity to excel at Level 3 performance standards but need to study composition standards at Level 1.

In these ways NCEA allows teaching and learning of students to occur as opposed to the teaching and learning of subjects. As a result of this user-friendly approach students' motivation is enhanced and more students are able to experience success.

NCEA is a learner-friendly, standards-based assessment system
NCEA is a transparent system in that it allows students to be well informed about the criteria for success. Students are made aware of what is required to achieve Excellence, Merit or Achieved. They are able to work towards defined goals. Under the traditional, norm-referenced system, which dealt in percentages and grades, and was primarily designed to rank students, students were/are frequently unclear about grade boundaries or the difference between 40 and 09 or between 61 and 76.

The standards-based (or criteria-referenced) approach works from the premise that assessment should tell us whether a student has a basic level of mastery of something (Achieved) or not (Not Achieved). NCEA also tells us if the level of mastery is more than adequate (Achieved with Merit) or outstanding (Achieved with Excellence).

NCEA provides detailed information to learners, their families and potential employers about what learners know and are able to do, and how well. Current abilities are recognised; future potential is signposted.

NCEA encourages and rewards students who achieve at high levels
NCEA is designed to help motivate students to achieve at high levels and to reward those who are successful. We observe widespread evidence of this in action at Western Springs College where, often with staff guidance, students set themselves high or personally challenging targets.

NCEA recognises high achievement through certificate endorsement. Students who gain 50 credits at Excellence receive their certificate endorsed with Excellence. Likewise students who gain 50 credits at Merit ( or Excellence & Merit ) receive a certificate endorsed with Merit.

Course endorsement recognises a student who has performed exceptionally well in an individual course ( or subject ). Students gain a course endorsement if in a single year they achieve 14 or more credits at Merit or Excellence, and at least 3 of these credits come from externally assessed standards with 3 credits from internally assessed standards.

While students need to accumulate a minimum number of credits to gain NCEA certificates at Levels 1, 2 & 3, and to gain University Entrance ( at Level 3 ), grade quality ( Excellence and/or Merit ) has become equally, if not more, important. In this regard an increasing number of university faculties have set grade point prerequisites as a means of deciding limited access to degree courses.

NZQA moderation systems provide for consistency of assessment practices
Every four years Western Springs College undergoes a New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA) national school systems check; the next review is scheduled for 2015.The key questions to be addressed in this audit are:

  • How effective is the school in ensuring the validity of assessment for national qualifications?
  • Are assessment practices valid, fair, consistent, reliable, accurate and at the national standard?
  • How effectively does the school manage internal and external moderation?
  • How effectively does the school keep up-to-date with assessment policy and procedures and communicate these to staff, students and families?
  • How adequately has the school addressed action items from the previous audit?

The previous Managing National Assessment report (NZQA 2011) commended Western Springs College for its ongoing development of its systems and practice in managing assessment for qualifications since the last review in 2008. “Effective self-review processes have led (WSC) to provide more focused academic counseling for students, which is bringing continued improvements in qualifications completion rates and endorsements. Parents are well informed of students’ goals and achievements.

"Teachers use a wide range of assessment methods to good effect. Assessment practice is kept up to date and this is progressively reflected in an updated and rationalised documentation."

‘Teacher’ internal moderation practice is generally robust and the planned improvements will strengthen it further. Where a concern is identified, it is managed appropriately.

“The school’s entries and results data are accurate and are usefully analysed.”

It is notable that students receive back all of their papers, are able to obtain expert advice, and, if warranted, can arrange for them to be reassessed.

NCEA is an assessment system which is aligned to practice at the tertiary level
The balance of internal assessment and external examinations in NCEA courses is in line with that used at universities and polytechs, again determined by the nature of the learning. At one end of the continuum for subjects like Accounting, assessment is predominantly by external examination; at the opposite end Physical Education is exclusively internally assessed; in between most NCEA courses in secondary schools, like subjects such as Engineering at university, use internal assessment and examinations in roughly equal measure.

By ensuring a degree of balance between internal and external assessment for NCEA courses Western Springs College teachers are conscious of the need to prepare students to be able to cope with tertiary examinations by developing revision and exam techniques at the secondary level through the study of externally examined courses.

For all of the above reasons Western Springs College supports NCEA.

Parents who have queries are welcome to email these to the principal’s secretary: goodesc@wsc.school.nz