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.

Latest

The enduring sandwich: What's not to like about bread and fillings?
94342 2018-09-23 00:00:00Z Food

The enduring sandwich: What's not to like about br…

by Margo White

Despite an apparent backlash against bread – against carbohydrates and gluten – the sandwich endures.

Read more
Humanity is on 'the highway to digital dictatorship', says Yuval Noah Harari
96527 2018-09-22 00:00:00Z Social issues

Humanity is on 'the highway to digital dictatorshi…

by Andrew Anthony

The author of worldwide bestsellers Sapiens and Homo Deus says our free will is at stake. We talk to Yuval Noah Harari about his new book.

Read more
Why there's no 'clash of civilisations' between Islam and the West
96558 2018-09-22 00:00:00Z Social issues

Why there's no 'clash of civilisations' between Is…

by Yuval Noah Harari

There is just one civilisation in the world, writes Yuval Noah Harari, and the West and Islam are joint participants in it.

Read more
The Kiwi cicada expert who's just 11 years old
94985 2018-09-22 00:00:00Z Science

The Kiwi cicada expert who's just 11 years old

by Ken Downie

Hamilton entomologist Olly Hills isn’t in high school yet, but he’s already a world expert – and he wrote a book.

Read more
Thackeray's Vanity Fair gets a clever update for the millenial age
96633 2018-09-22 00:00:00Z Television

Thackeray's Vanity Fair gets a clever update for t…

by Russell Brown

A new TV version of William Makepeace Thackeray’s 19th-century satirical novel taps into today's celebrity-Instagram culture.

Read more
The debate over the Serena Williams controversy was a dialogue of the deaf
96659 2018-09-22 00:00:00Z Sport

The debate over the Serena Williams controversy wa…

by Paul Thomas

Serena Williams’ US Open outburst was unbecoming but the umpire made a mess of his response.

Read more
The classical blokes saluting unsung women composers
96670 2018-09-21 14:16:06Z Music

The classical blokes saluting unsung women compose…

by The Listener

The suffrage celebrations get a soundtrack from all-male ensemble NZTrio.

Read more
Labour MPs stand behind Jacinda Ardern's action on Meka Whaitiri
96630 2018-09-21 07:31:30Z Politics

Labour MPs stand behind Jacinda Ardern's action on…

by Gia Garrick

The public will have to wait to see a report into an assault claim against MP Meka Whaitiri, who was yesterday stripped of her ministerial portfolios.

Read more