NCEA and national standards results are being manipulated by the government to a high degree to make it look as though things are going well in education. Making things seem to go well in education allows the government a relatively free hand to maintain its fierce centralised control of education and from there to exclude teachers from genuine participation in policy- and decision-making; to implement a narrow education aimed at vocational ends; and to avoid policies that while they might well improve education – particularly for children from lower socio-economic environments – are removed from consideration on grounds of cost. School education at both primary and secondary is weak and heading to the dismal. The government has been willing to provide money for certain projects like national standards and clusters because they are organisational features that increase centralised control and steer well clear of anything approaching the curriculum except as represented by national standards.
My main concern is that signals are not being issued about the fissuring weaknesses in primary children’s learning so that by the time children get to secondary nothing has been done about them and their ability to think imaginatively, write fluently, read independently, and use maths flexibly has been seriously diminished and their academic or vocational choices seriously restricted.
This posting is mainly about secondary but there is now available a major new source of high stakes manipulation and pressure organised by the government. The cluster system has been set up by ministry personnel or those contracted by the government to go around the clusters near imposing a national standards target at around 85%. If a cluster tried for less, its projection was sent back to the ministry for amendment. The targets finally established have some very low decile areas having a higher standards target than higher decile areas. Given that the present marks of many schools are already significantly inflated a cruel predicament is developing with harm to children’s learning inevitable. My estimate is that national standards, overall, are inflated from between 8-12%. That inflation is about to become significantly higher. This would seem to be increased school achievement, post-modern style.
In the previous posting (see above) I discussed the ways primary schools manipulated marks in response to high stakes assessment pressure ‘organised’ by the government. In this posting, after discussion with secondary teachers in Auckland and Christchurch, I am able to outline how secondary schools respond to the same phenomenon. This is being done in secondary in some ways similarly to primary schools but in others somewhat differently. The opportunity to manipulate NCEA marks in secondary schools providing a wider field of action.
I was told by the secondary teachers of plummeting standards in learning and work ethic. Many students they told me, pick and choose credits, look for the easy way through, avoid externals like the plague, put pressure on teachers for help beyond that allowable, and are quite content to ‘pass’ the literacy requirements at a lamentable level.
I was also told Qualifications Authority personnel were good people very willing to help – of high integrity in every respect except one, and that respect was when it became their task to transfer political pressure to classroom practice. They all agreed, though, that life with the Authority, leaving aside the ramped up effects of government manipulation and pressure, is more even under the current leadership than under Bali Haque
- This following is highly deniable, but is occurring – in the interests of fairness, the teachers accepted the need for some adjustment to results (before publication), they were nevertheless adamant that political pressure was put on final head office moderation to smooth out embarrassing and revealing inconsistencies and to lift marks. The chief moderator, I was told, qualified for a bonus on marks reaching a certain level. How does this work considering the marks are in? They had heard in this respect of moderators down the chain being pressured from head office to agree to certain tweaks – tweaks they disagreed with and which involved lifting marks. This process is not transparent and the government has a vested interest in preventing it from being so.
- The external examination standards-based system was based on four grades in the marking (Excellence: Merit: Achieved: Not achieved) but has been changed to carry a number. This means the system is now a scaled system not a standards one. And in being a number system can now be used for percentages, allowing more scope for head office moderation and upward lift.
- Secondary teachers also undertook actions to manipulate marks somewhat reminiscent of those taken by primary teachers. This might create a bit of a din, but while the actions occur across all secondary schools, they occur particularly intensively in schools that take the Cambridge Examinations as well. Taking the Cambridge Examinations as well, has the obvious effect of restricting time for NCEA meaning shortcuts are a near necessity. Also, schools taking the Cambridge Examinations are almost certainly ones that have very high examination expectations.
A few of the actions taken within classrooms to manipulate results are:
- Far more assessment opportunities than regulation allows (this is almost universal)
- Overly scaffolding learning (in other words, setting out more information for student inclusion in their answering than should properly be made available)
- Putting information on whiteboard and leaving it there
- Overly detailed and suggestive feedback
- Working in the computer lab to allow cutting and pasting.
Literacy can now be passed in nearly any subject – with most passing that requirement before they sit English, as a result, few take English seriously. The students can be passed for literacy, for instance, by drawing a graph, moving the curves correctly and adding a couple of sentences. They are able to pass passing in literacy using credits where the attention is not on the literacy but the ideas contained, scattered around so to speak. Very little English has to be deployed to pass.
The way things are set up allows many students to sidestep challenges, play a game of deep manipulation, just doing enough to meet what is required – leaving an overwhelming feeling of neither caring about learning nor understanding what was supposed to have been learnt.
The minister of education is on record as being vehemently against results based on test participation as against total roll, but the publication of results by the ministry always headlines participation-based. It’s crazy.
NCEA, as is the case for national standards, is in a terrible mess, an instrument of propaganda for the government and a curriculum wrecking ball – the lack of authenticity and the related manipulation rampant. Students are more-or-less saying, if you want me to pass, get me through, but if you won’t someone else will.
The farce of post-Christmas passes that became a particularly big thing two years ago will serve as a metaphor for the whole sorry matter.
The universities understandably fed up with large numbers of half-literate, unmotivated, and anti-intellectual students turning up at their ivy-framed gated-entrance, lobbied for some consolidation of English and mathematics standards into external exams. The result, a plummeting of marks that not even the ritual head office tweaking could hide. So there was a rush of students back to their local schools early in the New Year for what I call holiday passes. Typically, those students have not so much failed as fooled around in the course of the year making a nuisance of themselves with their distracting behaviour and lack of motivation. Then, after the results are out, having heard, say, that a friend was going to university at Dunedin to do a physical education course become all interested and beseech their secondary school. The school in return has a vested interest in building up pass numbers. Success by a student in any post-Christmas NCEA sale would necessarily involve breaking NCEA protocols. The teaching or learning would not have been authentic. Students should properly have only been offered a touch here and there by the teacher with the initiative lying very much with the student. There is an additional point; if post-Christmas sale was open to one student it should by regulation have been opened to all.
A newly-appointed teacher, straight from the school of education, was given some post-Christmas students to pass. She couldn’t believe what was happening. Nothing at the school of education had prepared her for this. After tearfully approaching the principal he allocated the students to another teacher and it was all wrapped up in a week. In fact, the local newspaper proceeded to make local heroes of the students and teachers concerned.
But wait for it – unintended consequences? well hardly but apparently. Student numbers at universities dropped (wow! who could have guessed?), putting funding at risk so the universities set aside the legal minimum for university entrance and conjured up something called vice-chancellor’s discretion.
Two final concerning points: in this posting I have restricted myself to discussing the narrow subject content characteristic of standards and tests and their implementation to dismal quality – what I haven’t discussed is the even more destructive effect of all this on wider imaginative learning; and, second, the information just received that the government is working on a scheme to move external NCEA units to being mainly internal ones. This, of course, will send the ‘achievement’ sky high, further debasing student learning.
Oh happy days in 21st century New Zealand education.