Wide of the mark

by Pamela Stirling / 29 July, 2006

New Zealand has always prided itself on being a meritocracy. Anyone can rise to become a Cabinet minister - that's just one of the risks of living here. For a century, the great engine of opportunity has been our education system. The rigour of its examinations has ensured that a result gained in the poorest school in the land has carried the same status as a mark obtained in the wealthiest grammar schools. So it is unfortunate that this month - as the Labour Party, the supposed champion of fairness and equality, celebrated its 90th anniversary - we should be presented with such dismaying evidence that, for the current generation of students, such assurances no longer exist.

A Herald on Sunday investigation has revealed that, far from being a level playing field, internal assessment under NCEA is wide open to manipulation. In 2005, the New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA) checked just 3.2 percent of about two million internally assessed standards. Schools themselves choose which internal assessments to send for checking, so teachers can push up pass rates without fear of being caught. Indeed, one teacher at a top Auckland school reported that he had twice deliberately marked a boy higher than his actual score because "he was a heck of a nice kid".

Astoundingly, almost a third of last year's internally marked work checked by the NZQA was found to have been marked incorrectly. A further 10 percent was reported to be invalid because the tasks set were not appropriate. And yet these results are never changed on the student record, despite evidence that the error rate is increasing. Is this the system that successive education ministers have assured us is no longer, after the Cambridge High debacle, open to abuse?

It is clear that all this will strike most cruelly the students from low-decile schools. The stigma of suspicion will attach itself to their results. Last year those at decile-one schools took almost twice as many internal standards as those at the highest-decile schools. Indeed, despite assurances that NCEA would not act as a Trojan horse for the removal of exams, some students can now go through their entire school career without ever sitting an external exam. Emeritus professor of education Warwick Elley has scrutinised internally assessed standards for Level 1 and reports that the pass rates for these standards are at least 20 percent higher than those for externally assessed standards in the same subjects. If employers and the community cannot trust the rigour of internal assessment, there will come to be a de facto structure where calls are made on the basis of ethnicity, parental background or school reputation, and there can be no credibility - or justice - in that.

The tragedy for a nation that has so proudly eschewed class structure is that we are rapidly erecting a two-tier education system: at least 44 schools now offer the Cambridge Examination system. Our schools are being colonised while the government stands by and protests that there is nothing wrong with an assessment system that its own citizens no longer trust. Two years ago this magazine pointed out that "the surprise is learning that, even when a school's moderation process is proved faulty under the NCEA, students can still retain their inflated marks". It now appears that, to the minister, that's still a surprise.

For the students, there are few such surprises left. They know very well the potential for favouritism - or prejudice - when so much is left to the discretion of individual teachers. A Victoria University study released by the minister this month reveals that students perceive NCEA as illogical and "unfair" when higher achievers get the same level of credits as basic achievers. For the lower achievers there has always been the risk of being pigeonholed and forced to do limited, dumbed-down versions of subjects. Now, two-thirds of the 6000 students surveyed have criticised the NCEA as having a negative influence on the motivation to learn.

For all the flexibility and benefits of NCEA, it must be urgently examined. We need more rigorous training of teachers and more quality assurance. There must be random checks, transparent reporting of results and a way of anchoring internal to external results. The ideological agenda has clearly been to have a system in which nobody fails. The biggest failure so far has been the system itself.

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