Opinion: The value and portability of NCEA

Tuesday 16 May 2023

By Associate Professor Jenny Poskitt.

The New Zealand curriculum is currently being refreshed, along with NCEA standards, to better equip our young people for their future.

The New Zealand Herald article related to St Cuthbert’s College’s concerns about the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) Level 1 reveals the need for clearer understanding about the information and processes that underpin Aotearoa New Zealand’s school curriculum and qualifications.

Although New Zealand is geographically isolated, it is closely connected with international organisations in education, such as the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and is a member of multiple international educational networks. New Zealand is therefore informed by, and contributes to, international developments in curriculum, learning, teaching and assessment.

Internationally, the focus of curriculum is shifting towards integration and application of knowledge for solving today’s complex problems and issues. There’s a greater emphasis on flexible and critical thinking which is developed through linking concepts across subjects (fields of knowledge), analysing, evaluating data and collaboratively creating solutions. Consequently, more integration of subjects is occurring to better equip learners to connect important concepts and think more flexibly.

Associate Professor Jenny Poskitt.

These important concepts, that cannot be left to chance, are outlined in the national curriculum which frames the learning areas, and learning progressions that schools are expected to cover in teaching programmes. In consultation with their communities, schools adapt the learning topics and contexts to their local circumstances, known as localised curriculum, which is what St Cuthbert’s is doing.

The New Zealand curriculum is currently being refreshed, along with NCEA standards, to better equip our young people for their future. Extensive consultation and collaboration is occurring with subject experts (teacher specialists, researchers, professional development facilitators, Initial Teacher Education), educational agencies, union representatives (e.g. Post Primary Teachers' Association, Te Akatea Māori Principals' Association), Pacific and migrant communities, community representatives, interest groups (e.g. New Zealand Deaf Association, New Zealand Assessment Institute), young people and international experts.

There is a close connection between curriculum, teaching and learning and assessment, where each informs the other and evolves in response to contemporary theory and practice. Likewise, national school qualifications like NCEA are similarly informed by, and responsive to, international and national expertise and consultation. NCEA not only prepares students for entry to university, other tertiary study or ITO training pathways, but also for life-wide and lifelong learning.

Students seeking additional academic challenge and extension may enter the New Zealand Scholarship assessments to demonstrate high-level critical thinking and application to complex situations. Interestingly, the 2023 Premier and Prime Minister Award winners not only excelled in multiple subject areas, but also in sport, debating, music, chess and volunteered their time to coach other students or in community organisations like refugee centres.

University programmes with professional affiliations like veterinary science, medicine, education and engineering are increasingly seeking evidence of students’ broader capabilities such as interpersonal skills, cultural responsiveness (e.g., Tiriti o Waitangi privileges and responsibilities) and contribution to the community.

Exciting developments in digitised assessment are advancing access to information on how students are thinking and learning. These assessments extend students’ learning in digital fluency and complex constructs like creativity and collaboration, through various multi-dimensional and cultural frameworks. Rigorous quality assurance processes underpin nationally and internationally developed qualifications to ensure dependable, valid and reliable data and certification. These processes ensure the rigor and portability of school qualifications like NCEA. Even at Level 1, NCEA is internationally recognised, a significant advantage when students move between schools in New Zealand and other countries.

Another consideration with national and internationally connected qualifications is their responsiveness to changes in the educational or societal environment.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the New Zealand Qualifications Authority, in consultation with the experts noted above, made elegant adjustments in the form of Recognition Credits. These Recognition Credits acknowledged schooling disruptions and retained the rigour of the qualification while not disadvantaging students in their qualification attainment. Similar international and national investigations are currently underway in response to Artificial Intelligence tools like ChatGPT.

Despite their best intentions, individual schools do not have the time, resources and extensive networks of expertise to develop or quality assure qualifications. Consequently, school-based qualifications, like those proposed by St Cuthbert’s College, are limiting for school leavers. Their school qualification will not be widely recognised by employers or tertiary providers to open future pathways for school leavers.

Associate Professor Jenny Poskitt is an academic within the Institute of Education at Te Kunenga ki Pūrehuroa Massey University. She is also President of the New Zealand Assessment Institute.

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