NCEA in Context

ncea20in20context_cover_frontNCEA in Context is a compelling page turner released earlier this year (chapter one here). Written by Rosemary Hipkins, Michael Johnston and Mark Sheehan, it contextualises the introduction of the system and evaluates the implementation and the shifts that have occurred since 2002.  As well as covering an interesting history of assessment, there were several points to reflect further on, captured below.

The systematic barriers to innovation were fleshed out for me in concerning detail. This theme popped up in a range of chapters, from the creation of the UE requirements which places restrictions on assessment delivery in Y13 (and by extension the formative years) to the development of moderation procedures which have had a restricting affect on risk-taking by emphasising fair assessment procedures. The authors suggest “the problematic assumption…is that academic rigour inherently resides in traditional subject arrangements” (172).

A persuasive section of the book tackled the relationship between NCEA and the NZC. In Rosemary’s RNZ interview, she suggested: “NCEA is only the method of assessing the learning. Actually what should be driving is the curriculum.” The result of this relationship is suggested to be fragmented course design involving “loose aggregations of standards approached as separate curriculum topics” (153). Case studies showcased cohesive approaches to this challenge.

Content selection was also challenged given that “coverage is not even an option anymore” (148). Teachers need to think “more broadly yet also more explicitly about the purposes for which they teach specific content” (147). They suggest more streamlining of content that is both”life-worthy and life-ready” (149). This to me felt like it was targeted at traditionalists who are firmly holding on to outdated approaches to content design, a trend that I would suggest is over-represented in traditional subjects.

A theme throughout the book was the notion of self-fulfillment when tackling the perceived problems of NCEA. The authors suggest, “Expectations that students will not cope become self-fulfilling when they are not supported to try and develop their higher order thinking capacities” (192). This is another reminder about the impact of assumptions and the importance of forecasting high expectations to all students.

Chapter 14 embraced the challenges for students when presented with the relentless pressure of consistent assessment for three years as well as the flexibility of choice that places significant responsibility in the hands of the students. The authors promote caution as to whether relentless assessment (leading to higher percentages) and more student choice has led to better life-worthy learning.

For reform and revisioning of assessment to take place, the authors are clear that a whole school approach is necessary. As Rosemary stated on RNZ; “The safest conditions for doing less is an agreement for the whole school. This is something that teachers have to be addressing collegially.” Three steps are suggested:

  1. Remove the assumption that whole cohorts will follow a lock-step curriculum
  2. Access for every student to academic mentoring to support individual decision making
  3. Stakeholders (student, parents, whanau, teachers, community) all understand the “wholeness of the intersecting pieces” that make up a school’s assessment plan (198).

The final chapter is called “Reimagined NCEA.” These are some of my key takeaways:

  • Assessment to “become so enmeshed in the everyday work of the students that they would not even know they were being assessed” (206).
  • To implement significant changes the focus should be the implementation, not formal sweeping changes to the system.
  • Increasing the understanding of the differences and intersections of NCEA and the NZC is fundamental to reimagining.
  • Professional learning is key: “Teacher expertise will be of paramount importance to maximising the probability that successful practice will evolve” (216).

Hipkins, R., Johnston, M., & Sheehan, M. (2016) NCEA in Context. Wellington: NZCER Press.


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