Graduating Teacher Standard 2.b

“Graduating teachers have knowledge of a range of relevant theories, principles and purposes of assessment and evaluation.”

In the last week or so newsmedia sites were awash with stories that a prominent Auckland boys’ secondary school has directed its year 11 students to sit for the University of Cambridge’s international exams instead of the local national qualification the National Certificate in Educational Achievement(NCEA).

According to the school’s principal, the rational for the school’s decision is that boys learning styles are better suited to the end-of-year exam offered by the Cambridge qualification, rather than the internal-assessment-focused NCEA. In the same article the principal has said that the school would still be offering the NCEA to the academically ‘weaker’ students at his school, a comment which made me reflexively flinch. Surely he is not inferring that girls are academically weaker because they excel in the NCEA?

Certainly recent data backs up the Principal’s contention that girls perform better than boys in the NCEA. Interestingly the NCEA has seen an increase in students from poorer schools gaining formal qualifications.

Proponents of the NCEA argue that due to its reliance on internal assessment, the qualification gives a more accurate picture of student achievement because their work is assessed throughout the year rather than a 3 hour high-stakes exam. Moreover more students are leaving school with qualifications which is a vast improvement from the days when half the students sitting School Certificate (level 1 of the NCEA) were destined to fail before they had even cracked the spine of their examination booklets.

Detractors argue that the NCEA is not challenging enough for academically able students and that credits are too easy to gain in non-academic subjects. They also argue that the lack of external exams means that qualification is unreliable, as results are determined by classroom teachers which make school-on-school comparisons meaningless. Finally they argue that internal assessment is more open to academic plagiarism, as students are able source ready-made assignments from the internet.

Who is right?

To answer that question brings up a whole bunch of other questions. Why do we assess students at the end of their formal schooling? What is it we are supposed to be assessing? And most importantly who gets to decide who passes?

So why do we formally assess students at the end of their schooling career? On the face of it qualifications are a way for our society to document what skills and knowledge an individual has gained during their schooling career. For instance at the end of this year (all going well), I will get a piece of paper saying from my university saying they think I have enough knowledge and skills to be let loose in a classroom of kids. Because my university is recognized by the government and schools as being an authority on such matters, someone should hopefully employ me to do such work.

Likewise when the education system deems a student to have reached a certain level of literacy and numeracy at the end of school, it gives the student a qualification. The system might also recognize students’ knowledge in specialist subject areas like art, technology and music.

What is not being talked about in the newspaper articles but is implicit in our education system is the idea of rationing. School qualifications aren’t just about telling the world in paper form who can read, write and do multiplication. They are also used as a way to ration access to other parts of the education system and also to the employment market.

To move from secondary school onto tertiary study, the government and the institutions themselves say that you need to have reached a certain level of competency to be able to study there. However some courses and institutions find themselves with far more applicants than they have places for. In the absence of a sorting hat, institutions need a way of picking students to admit. This is when the purpose of the end of secondary school assessment changes. While some institutions might decide to draw names out of a hat or admit students who live within a qualified students within a certain geographic area, in general administrators want to admit the best students of the group. How do they find them? Often by school qualifications which are now being used to not see what skills and knowledge a student has, but how well students do in comparison to others.

Which is what makes answering the second two questions, what is valid knowledge and who gets to decide who possesses knowledge, a lot more difficult. Everyone seems to agree that they believe in excellence in education, you’d  be hard pressed to find anyone in the education system who advocates average schooling or mediocre tertiary institutions. Harvard, Princeton, Yale and other members of Ivy League leagues are held up as world leaders in the field of tertiary education, the best and brightest students in the world are studying there. Yet in the not so recent past they engineered their admissions policies to deny access to Jewish students. More recently some Asian-American students have claimed that they are denied admission to elite American universities due to racial preferences in the admissions process. Across the Atlantic Ocean one black student was admitted to Oxford during the last academic year. One student, not one percent, that’s one as in a single student. Closer to home there has been ongoing concern that Maori and Pasifika students are underrepresented in New Zealand universities.

Clearly the context of what constitutes academic excellence matters.

This post is already far longer that I initially intended so I’ll get back to the NCEA conundrum.

Although there were subjects that were either partially or fully internally assessed under the old system, the NCEA represented a major shift in who has the power to assess knowledge. Broadly speaking we’ve moved from a system of external markers and scaling being the final arbitrators in determining who passes and who fails to classroom teachers having far more clout to determine student achievement irregardless of what effects their decision might have on the national bell curve. Moreover one of the key reasons for the introduction of the NCEA to increase the types of knowledge and skills that were formally recognized by the system with no segregation between academic and vocational subjects. The introduction of the NCEA has resulted in more people determining more types of knowledge valid which in itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But in the context of rationing resources it is what makes education such a politically charged topic.

What constitutes knowledge and who gets decide who has it?

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