The Natioanal Certificate Educational Achievement

School Certificate, Sixth Form Certifi-
cate, Bursary Ñ these are names that most New Zealanders feel comfortable with. They are surely the measure of successful secondary students and to some the mark of whether or not schools are successful. Yet these qualifications will be phased out over the next four years, to be replaced by single award, the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA).
For those of us who completed our schooling in the 1960s, the senior secondary school nowadays may be bewildering place.
Our sixth form choices were clear Ñ English was compulsory, we chose arts or sciences as our ?band’ and were streamed by ability. Within each band our options were very limited Ñ Latin or History, Chemistry or Geography. All fifth form classes led to School Certificate and you passed if you got above 200 in your top four subjects. In my year nobody in the three bottom classes passed. Sixth form classes led to UE, and seventh form to the Higher SC award or the Scholarship exam.
Nowadays the exam structure is still in place. But bands and streams are out, with students able to choose their own courses from wide variety of programmes on offer. Some schools offer the International Baccalaureate or other examinations. Some offer diploma and even degree papers. Some students take School Certificate in year 10, while others may do combination of year 11 and year 12 subjects. Many students do mixture of unit standards, polytechnic courses, work placements and conventional subjects.
In particular there is sense that although schools still manage well the increasingly complex academic programmes, for non-academic students there is no clear direction or purpose. Many end up with mixture of unit standards and mediocre sixth form certificate grades, and few skills to enter either the workforce, or for continuing study.
The NCEA is designed to change all that. It is tolerant qualification, that tries to reconcile pressures to retain examinations and pressures to abolish them, the advocates of unit standards and those who wouldn’t touch them, those who look to the past and those who predict the future.
It is hard not to get caught up in questions of the relative value of academic versus applied courses, and whether grades are superior to marks. It is hard to justify claims that the NCEA will improve standards, or that it can be introduced without impacting on curriculum and teaching practices. (Each subject is being divided into several “achievement standards” which will be independently assessed and reported on.)
It is also hard to get clear understanding of what the “achievement standards” will eventually look like, as there seems little agreement as yet between the Ministry of Education and the Qualifications Authority about what may be accepted.
Claims that the assessment burden will increase do not seem to carry much weight, as assessment processes are unlikely to be prescribed. There will also be opportunity to rationalise and integrate assessments, so that they are no longer separate from the teaching processes themselves, and will consolidate and reinforce the teaching.
For students undertaking academic programmes, the differences are unlikely to be more than those of qualification name and reporting style. The important difference will be for students who are currently undertaking variety of non-academic and work skills programmes and not gaining any worthwhile record in recognition of their efforts.
There are good reasons for giving the NCEA our tentative endorsement:
? clearer description of the study undertaken at each level of school, together with an outline of each student’s achievements in the course of study. This means that students will enter the job market with valuable description of their achievements at secondary school.
? Greater recognition of non-academic, applied programmes than the present reporting regime, as they will generate credits in similar way to those from academic programmes.
? Affirmation also of the need to have assessments appropriate for the course of study, with recognition that examinations have limited applicability to practical programmes, and that the unit standard approach is often both cumbersome and of limited applicability to the competencies being considered in school subjects.
? The acceptance of other programmes of study such as the NZIM Enterprise Certificate in Management, either through equivalence or through defining the papers in terms of achievement standards. This enables students to claim credit for courses both to the NCEA and to other qualifications.
The NZIM Enterprise Certificate is specifically designed for delivering papers to senior students of secondary school, which relate very closely to the world of work and enterprise. Many papers are outside the core school curriculum and so obtain STAR funding. These include courses on employment relations, marketing, human resources, workplace communication and problem solving.
The programme has already been picked up enthusiastically by some 60 secondary schools around New Zealand and gives students an opportunity to gain the skills and knowledge which are very relevant when they are looking for job.
Given the debates that have been raging about the senior secondary curriculum, the NCEA’s most important role may be symbolic. It is an attempt to focus on learning rather than teaching. It provides the message that there are many valid ways of teaching and assessing, that students have multifarious learning needs and ambitions, and that student school achievements should be celebrated and validated whatever form they take.

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