NCEA has been given a major overhaul to make the qualification more relevant and accessible, while setting students up for work or higher education. Laura Walters looks at what will change and why cross-party support is so important.

NCEA will look significantly different thanks to an overhaul that aims to make the qualification more relevant to the way today’s students learn, and the skills they need for the future.

The changes include limiting the number of assessments, strengthening numeracy and literacy skills through a new benchmark, and making the qualification more accessible to a range of students, including those wanting to continue Māori-medium education through secondary school.

The raft of changes will be phased in over the next four years, following a year-long review, which found the national qualification was lacking in accessibility and had fallen prey to over-assessment. Feedback from 16,000 people revealed NCEA’s structure was confusing, and the fragmented system often led to students leaving school with knowledge gaps.

The changes represent a major shift from the current NCEA environment, and are proof of robust consultation, which has seen vastly different viewpoints around NCEA reform meet in the middle.

This has resulted in cross-party backing, with National Party education spokesperson Nikki Kaye throwing her support behind the general direction of travel.

Too often education is caught in a pendulum swing, and a change of Government results in changes to education policy, which holds up actual progress for students.

Kaye said she would be watching for the detail regarding changes to the size and type of assessments, as well as the implementation plan, but believed the changes were a step in the right direction.

“It really matters for kids and the changes impact for decades to come.”

To get this stance through a caucus in opposition was pretty significant.

While many National MPs understand the importance of making NCEA more accessible, reducing the number of assessments, and removing fees, there is always going to be a group of Opposition MPs who will disagree with anything the Government does.

Fees free 2.0

Part of the push to remove barriers to the national education qualification includes removing fees for both NCEA and scholarship exams.

Education Minister Chris Hipkins said the removal of the $76.70 fee per student will affect about 145,000 households.

Currently fees disadvantaged the country’s most vulnerable students, and those from lower socio-economic backgrounds were less likely to participate in higher-level scholarship exams, he said.

Abolishing fees would hopefully make things a bit easier for families to make ends meet and ensure every student who achieves NCEA could receive their qualification.

This pre-Budget announcement will be funded through $49 million over the next four years.

In a rare show of unity, National Party education spokesperson Nikki Kaye has pledged the Opposition’s support to the direction of travel of the NCEA changes, giving students and teachers more certainty. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Meanwhile, a further $14.5m of operating costs, and $6.4m in capital will go towards the continuation of the NCEA online rollout.

The New Zealand Qualifications Authority will continue to ramp up the availability of a digital NCEA, with 14 subjects offered online this year.

This, along with changes to special assessment conditions – for students who need support to give them a fair chance of achieving – is part of an effort to improve accessibility.

PPTA president Jack Boyle said online assessments helped remove barriers to achievement, but more work need to be done in terms of digital equity.

The ministry needed to make sure students were able to access to devices at school and at home, to give everyone the ability to carry out online assessments.

What will change?

The changes are broadly grouped into six areas: accessibility; equity for Māori-medium; literacy and numeracy; assessment standards; simplification; and future pathways.

The review teams were told NCEA had become increasingly disconnected, and the number of assessments had grown significantly over time.

This had led to an overwhelming workload for teachers and students, and the variance between assessments mean the system lacked coherence.

A full rebuild of achievement standards would see an even split between internal and external assessments, as well as a more consistent size of standards to between 4 and 6 credits – rather than the current 2 to 8+ range.

The fewer standards will cover a wider range of knowledge and look similar to the style of learning where knowledge is brought into wider context.

Critics of the current system say it is fragmented, and while students were subject to a lot of assessments, the system is confusing, and students can leave with significant knowledge gaps.

“Over-assessment has been swamping students and teachers and getting in the way of actual learning, and the current reality is that some students can finish school with gaps in their knowledge and skills.”

The change to assessment standards will also look at incorporating mātauranga Māori, vocational learning, and Pacific peoples’ knowledge.

The Government says a renewed focus on literacy and numeracy would mean no student left school without a basic level of competence, something that had been happening increasingly in New Zealand.

The new standard for literacy and numeracy will make up a package of 20 credits, which would be a co-requisite to NCEA, and can be met at any point from year 7 onwards.

These credits will not contribute to the 60 credits needed to pass each level of NCEA (the carry-over credit option has also been scrapped for simplicity).

Hipkins announced the changes at Mana College in Porirua on Monday.

“These improvements are a major step towards making the respected and valued NCEA more relevant for students,” he said.

“They address limitations and unintended consequences that have built up over time.

“Over-assessment has been swamping students and teachers and getting in the way of actual learning, and the current reality is that some students can finish school with gaps in their knowledge and skills.”

The changes meant NCEA would become more credible and robust, Hipkins said.

As part of the improvements, NCEA would also increase support for students to undertake NCEA through Māori-medium education.

Further investment and recruitment of teachers fluent in te reo Māori, along with a greater range of teaching materials will be developed so mātauranga Māori and te ao Māori have parity within the NCEA qualification.

The default choice for many whanau has been to revert to English-medium in secondary school, and Hipkins said improvements in this area were long-overdue.

How will this affect teacher workload?

The issue of teacher workload is inextricable from all education reform and reviews currently underway.

Both primary and secondary teachers are set to strike on May 29, and the sticking points in collective negotiations relate largely to workload issues.

Hipkins said the NCEA changes would give teachers more time to teach, and students more time to learn.

However, there were the inevitable questions that came with any significant system changes around the time and effort needed to design new resources, change assessment criteria, and undertake teacher training, he said.

PPTA president Jack Boyle said implementation and phasing in would be the key to managing workload issues.

PPTA supported the moves to make NCEA more accessible, coherent, and focused on equipping young people with all the skills they need for future work or study.

However, those changes needed to be paired with resources, time and support from the ministry, in order to avoid putting more pressure on an already stretched workforce, Boyle said.

The Ministry of Education will work with stakeholders to confirm the design and implementation plan by the end of the year, with implementation expected over four years starting in 2020. Costs will be finalised by the end of the year.

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