Rubbish credits needn’t undermine NCEA
Revealed again: pupils can be given NCEA credits for doing washing, gift-wrapping, or even turning up to class for 20 consecutive days. Sounds insane, doesn’t it? In fact, it is insane, and it might even lead some people to believe that NCEA is beyond hope. Those people fail to see the rest of it. The rubbish credits are a flaw, they are a fundamental flaw, but they do not fundamentally flaw NCEA.
The NCEA model is based on what is known as criterion-referenced or standards-based assessment. The idea is that students are marked not against their peers, but against a standard. If they meet the standard, they get the credit. If they fail, they don’t. The best standards-based systems use norm-referencing to set the standards; whether this was actually done I don’t know but given that education is not new to New Zealand, there’s a decent chance it was, and anyway, that’s beside the point. Despite what some people might say, criterion-referenced assessment can and does work for academic subjects—there is no need to place people from first to last, just because a subject is “academic”. It is not unique to NCEA. The International Baccalaureate uses a criterion-referenced system, though at first glance it may not look like it because it is far more elaborate and remarkably different from the NCEA system.
But there is no reason to consider gift-wrapping, role-playing applying for a benefit or working in a group part of this model. The standards have no place in a secondary school qualification, and certainly no place in anything that’s intended to be academic. The academic-vocational divide is a fine one, even a gray-area one, but it must be drawn. Most schools have enough dignity to avoid the credit-cramming of Cambridge High School in 2004, but the fact of the matter is, the system can be taken advantage of in a way that makes the qualifications meaningless, and the mere possibility of it can rub off on the entire framework.
Rubbish standards like those, strictly speaking, weren’t meant to be part of NCEA. They are there because the origins of the National Qualifications Framework were vocational, intended to cater for what School Certificate could not. All that has happened is that academic qualifications were added to the framework in the form of achievement standards, on the assumption that academic and vocational pursuits could fit hand in hand in the same system.
There is a solution, and an obvious one, even if NZQA is reluctant to give up the trouble-making standards: make those standards ineligible for credit towards the NCEA. They can count towards whatever else they count towards, but the academic side of it must be reserved for academic standards. The problem, therefore, is that the NCEA is earnt once 80 credits from anywhere on the NQF are gained. All that needs to be done is to specify subfields and domains where the work can be considered worthy of inclusion.
There are other flaws that need to be addressed, of course, and each of them will have their own solution. But however many there might seem to be, the fundamental principles of the NCEA—those of assessing against standards and not other people, giving credit wherever it is due—are right. Works needs to be done, hard work, and fast. But turning our backs on the system is not an option. It has potential, the potential just needs to be realised.