Brogan Powlesland looks at why NCEA numbers are on the rise if New Zealand’s PISA results tell a different story

COMMENT: The Government tells us that education is getting better in New Zealand. In Prime Minister Bill English’s election date announcement, he declared that National would be campaigning on their strong record in Government, including the fact that “more kids are staying at school longer and getting better qualifications”.

Figure 1: NCEA pass rates (2004-2015)

The NCEA numbers seem to back him up. Qualification attainment rates are higher than ever.

Yet the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a three-yearly worldwide study by the OECD of 15-year-old school students’ educational performance on mathematics, science, and reading, paints a different story. (see Figure 2)

New Zealand’s PISA scores have been declining since tests started in 2000. Despite NCEA grades improving, actual standards in maths, science and reading have declined.

This strongly suggests that the NCEA qualification is suffering from ‘grade inflation’, where the actual standard signified by a given grade is declining. As with monetary inflation, the qualification is losing value.

Figure 2: NCEA Level 2 pass rates vs PISA scores

The phenomenon is also visible in the measure of functional literacy. Part of NCEA Level 1 requires students to show they are functionally literate. The proportion of students demonstrating this has been increasing since NCEA’s introduction. However, PISA’s measurement of functional literacy shows a slight declining trend. 

Figure 3: PISA vs NCEA: functional literacy

Matters are even worse for functional numeracy, where NCEA and PISA measures diversify widely.

Figure 4: PISA vs NCEA functional numeracy

Finally, achieving NCEA Endorsed with Excellence seems to have become easier. When NCEA endorsements were introduced in 2007, it was much more likely for a student to achieve PISA at level 5 or above than to achieve NCEA with Excellence. However, over time, fewer students have been achieving PISA at level 5 and above, particularly in mathematics, and a greater proportion of students have been achieving NCEA with Excellence. 

Figure 5: Proportion
of students achieving NCEA Endorsed with Excellence vs proportion of students
achieving Level 5 and above PISA results

This helps explain why New Zealand universities have been increasing guaranteed entry score requirements for NCEA Level 3 students. For example, the guaranteed entry score required for entry into a Bachelor of Arts programme at the University of Auckland increased from 120 in 2010 to 150 in 2017. This in itself is indicative of grade inflation as it shows students need higher NCEA grades to cope with University-level work.

International comparison: Great Britain

Grade inflation is a serious issue facing many western countries, especially when their governments have attempted to set grade achievement targets. In Britain, grade targeting in schools has been occurring since 1997, across the political spectrum. However, grade inflation became such a problem that in April 2012 the chief executive of Ofqual, the UK public examinations regulator, commented “If you look at the history, we have seen persistent grade inflation for these key qualifications for at least a decade. [It] is virtually impossible to justify and it has done more than anything to undermine confidence in the value of those qualifications”. Similar to New Zealand, Britain faced stagnant PISA scores along with increasing GCSE Grades.

Figure 6: GCSE Grades Awarded (1988-2016)

GCSE pass rates (A* to C grades) increased from 41.9 percent in 1988 to 69.8 percent in 2011, the peak of Britain’s grade inflation. Looking at the twelve years up to this peak, the number of students achieving GCSE increased from 59.2 percent to 69.8 percent, an overall increase of 18 percent. NCEA Level 1 pass rates have inflated twice as fast as British GCSE pass rates.

In 1988 the A grade was awarded to only 8.4 percent of students. By 2011 22.9 percent of students were achieving A or A* grades. Looking at the nine years up to the 2012 decision, the number of students achieving A or A* grades increased from 17.4 percent to 23.2 percent, an overall increase of 33 percent. Comparing nine-year periods, NCEA Level 1 with Excellence has inflated over four times faster than GCSE A or A* grade achievers.

The problem with grade inflation

Like monetary inflation, grade inflation shows a general devaluation of a qualification. Current achievers of NCEA benefit from gaining a higher-ranked qualification at the expense of earlier achievers of NCEA, who end up with a less valuable qualification despite having been higher-achieving at school.

Grade inflation sends misleading signals. Students who receive a higher grade may believe that they are genuinely good at what they are doing, when in actual fact, they might only be doing just as well as a lower graded student in previous years. Some students may not try as hard to improve themselves further, especially in a system such as NCEA that has wide bands of educational achievement.

Along with this, teachers may feel that students on track for their qualification do not require additional help, while in previous years, the same students may not have been on track for their qualification and would have required additional tuition.

Employers may have to take additional steps to ensure the value of the qualification held by a potential employee. A person holding NCEA Level 2 may not know as much as a person who earned their NCEA Level 2 in the years previous. As such, the value of NCEA Level 2 will have devalued over time, bringing down the entire value of NCEA Level 2.

Universities may unintentionally start admitting students that they may not have admitted previously. To compensate for this, they may need to increase the required grades needed to ensure admission, or in extreme cases, start facilitating their own exams.

Why grade inflation happens

The Government sets the curriculum, manages schools, designs qualifications, manages the assessment of students, and awards qualifications. Then it evaluates its education policies based on the quantity of qualifications awarded. This makes grade inflation no surprise.

Grade inflation can come about in many ways, such as making exam questions gradually easier, continuing to allow internal assessments to be marked too easily without consequence, and allowing ‘teaching to the test’. These achieve the political aim of making grades improve, even when real achievement is stagnant or declining.

Grade inflation can be avoided by separating the supplier of education (mainly the Government) from the supplier of the qualification.

Government should get out of the qualification business and let the governors of state schools choose more credible international examinations, such as International Baccalaureate or Cambridge, which have an interest in avoiding grade inflation. At any sign of long-term systematic grade inflation, parents, taking a long-term view for their children, would request that schools change examination system.

Brogan Powlesland is an Auckland-based policy analyst. He has formerly worked as a strategic advisor in Parliament and has worked for the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, a Canadian think tank.

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