The uncertainty of 2020 has led to high levels of anxiety for secondary students going into NCEA exams, Laura Walters reports

A private online learning platform provider is calling for the Government to find an extra $10 million in discretionary funding to help schools prepare anxious students for NCEA.

NCEA external examinations kick off on November 16, but a year of disruptions caused by Covid-19 has left secondary students feeling anxious, with teachers and senior management teams also feeling the pressure.

The Government, through NZQA, have loosened NCEA credit requirements and university entrance prerequisites, and are providing extra support and tools to schools.

But LearnCoach founder and chief executive Dave Cameron says the Government should focus its attention on providing discretionary funding to schools, who will then be able to help students access the tools and support that best suits their needs.

Cameron, who founded the widely used online learning platform in 2012, said for less than $10 million, the country’s secondary schools would be able to fund students and teachers to access a range of personalised solutions, such as workbooks and online tools of their choice.

The call for extra funding comes as students report feeling highly anxious, and teachers overworked.

A LearnCoach survey of about 800 students found almost 94 percent (93.8 percent) of secondary students felt either somewhat or extremely anxious about NCEA exams this year.

While NCEA exams are always a stressful time for students, this survey usually found between 60 and 70 percent of students reported feeling anxious.

This year, students said they felt out of control.

Meanwhile, the Education Review Office (ERO) reported a third of secondary principals interviewed mid-year said students were worried the national lockdown had harmed their NCEA achievement.

Cameron – a former maths teacher – said this anxiety brought on “analysis paralysis” for students, and put extra pressure on teachers and school senior management staff, who were trying to get students up to speed.

In the same LearnCoach survey, eight out of 10 students (80 percent) said they felt the impact of Covid-19 on their learning this year.

While New Zealand’s lockdown was shorter than most, high school students had felt the effects of the loss of classroom-based learning time. For Auckland students, the impact was more severe, with 13 days lost in August due to the resurgence of Covid-19.

Cameron said this had led to uncertainty and “messiness”, with students being at vastly different learning stages.

While some completed all of the online and out-of-class learning, others did some or none. In about 10 percent of cases, students had not re-engaged with learning after the first lockdown in March.

On average, teachers spend two minutes on each individual student, each day. That was not enough time to figure out a student’s individual learning needs in the current environment, and get them up to speed, Cameron said. He’s previously estimated teachers needed about 15 minutes of one-on-one time with each student, each day, to get them to the desired level.

LearnCoach founder Dave Cameron says students are feeling out of control and anxious ahead of this year’s NCEA exams, so more needs to be done to help them to feel prepared. Photo: Supplied

But because NCEA exams had been delayed, along with the deadline for some portfolios, there was still time to help students.

Regardless of Covid-19, about 90 percent of students did the majority of their learning for NCEA in the last month before exams; about 50 percent did most of their learning in the last two weeks.

While the Government would not want to encourage cramming, Cameron said these well-understood study patterns meant there was time to help students feel prepared for their assessments, by making self-directed learning tools available to students. Teachers could monitor that learning and intervene where necessary.

LearnCoach had about 105,000 students using its online NCEA resources ahead of the Covid lockdown, with that number growing by about 7000, after the lockdown was announced in March. While the platform already had a high level of market saturation, it had seen a significant increase in the amount of time students were spending online this year, in an effort to prepare for NCEA assessments.

He said this again spoke to the anxiety students felt, and their desire to do more to prepare.

While Cameron was calling for more help from Government, NZQA has already made a range of adjustments to account for this year’s disruption, including moving back exam dates, and postponing deadlines for portfolios for subjects such as design. NZQA has also made some specific online platforms available for students and teachers.

There has also been an adjustment to students’ ability to earn extra learning recognition credits, and fewer credits needed across core university entrance approved subjects in order to gain entrance into a New Zealand university (as well as expected discretion from universities). There have been additional adjustments made for Auckland secondary students due to the impact of the second lockdown. 

While changes to credit requirements would help students pass, extra support and pastoral care was needed to help students and staff deal with workload and anxiety.

NZQA deputy chief executive of achievement Kristine Kilkelly said the wellbeing of students was a priority. 

“One of our main areas of focus has been to help schools in using NCEA’s flexibility to support students who find themselves in a wide range of different situations.”

This included re-planning learning programmes and assessments. 

“We have also recently provided advice to schools around their final preparations in the lead up to exams,” she said, adding that support and advice was ongoing, and that NZQA’s guidance on managing exam pressure had been updated to reflect the Covid-19 situation.

“There’s real potential that they’ve fallen off a cliff and it’s very uncertain whether it’ll be possible to get some of those students back.”

NCEA level 2 is often used as a key indicator and statistic when looking at what students will go on to do in terms of further study, training or employment; and more generally, is linked to their future labour force status and income.

In 2019, 79 percent of school leavers achieved NCEA Level 2 or above

National data shows those at higher decile schools are more likely to achieve NCEA level 2, than their counterparts in decile 1 or 2 schools. There is also more likely to be bigger discrepancies between students at lower decile schools.

Asian and Pākehā students are more likely to achieve NCEA level 2 or above than Māori or Pasifika students.

Students at lower decile schools, who are more likely to come from lower socio-economic backgrounds, are also the students most likely to be impacted by Covid-19 in terms of disengaging with education, for a range or reasons, including the need to work and transience.

Cameron said despite the high levels of anxiety going into this year’s exams, about 90 percent of students would be fine. Most would pass NCEA or have the ability to resit assessments or attend summer school.

“Most people will be OK because they have a lot of safety nets.”

But the 10 percent of students who had disengaged with school may be hard to pull back into the system, and support through NCEA.

“There’s real potential that they’ve fallen off a cliff and it’s very uncertain whether it’ll be possible to get some of those students back.”

NZQA’s Kilkelly said the Ministry of Education is working with Te Aho o Te Kura Pounamu (Te Kura) to offer extra places in their Summer School this year, for students in Auckland who need up to 10 additional credits to attain an NCEA or university entrance.

The programme is run over the summer break for students to earn additional credits or specific internal standards at all NCEA levels. A range of subjects are offered, and are delivered online.

Additional places were also available in programmes like Te Kura’s Big Picture from Term 4, to allow students most at risk of not achieving NCEA to either dual enrol or enrol full-time in Te Kura. 

It is specifically designed to help students who were significantly impacted by the continuing Covid-19 disruptions, Kilkelly said. 

The programme could also help learners who had found it difficult to engage with their study this year. 

It involved online and face-to-face learning, with assessments done by Te Kura. 

The Ministry of Education is working with schools, iwi, churches and community organisations to identify students who would be suitable for this programme and support them to enrol. 

It is also working to identify communities of greatest need and proactively reaching out to seek referrals for these programmes.

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