Critical English Online

Qualifications reform: unit standards, the English Study Design Project and the NCEA.

Even more than curriculum reform, qualifications reform has been a contentious issue for New Zealand secondary teachers. For an overview of the history of advocacy that has lead to the current situation, check out "Where did NCEA come from" and the critical comments accompanying this evolutionary account. This account details the movement in New Zealand towards internal and criterion-referenced or standards-based assessment in the 1980s. For other takes on English and assessment via articles in English in Aotearoa, check out EIA Index.

In New Zealand, the Education Amendment Act of 1990 provided the legislative basis for the creation of a new agency, the New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA).This body was charged with developing a framework (to be called the National Qualifications Framework) for national qualifications in secondary schools and in post-school education and training. The framework made standards-based assessment a fundamental feature, but it was standards-based assessment in a particular form, that is, unit standards (documents setting out the learning outcomes to be attained in a particular sigment of a domain of knowledge) at eight levels.

There has been much debate about the virtues (and vices) of the NQF and unit standards. A good place to explore a range of points of view is the book Setting the standards: Issues in assessment for national qualifications. (1995). Roger Peddie & Bryan Tuck (Eds.). Palmerston North: Dunmore Press. The book includes articles by Alan Barker (arguing for the Framework), Codd, McAlpine & Poskitt (discussing the tensions in the political policy environment driving the 90s reforms), Bryan Tuck and Warwick Elley (examining the virtues and pitfalls of standards-based assessment) and Roger Peddie (examining among other things the tension between achievement-based assessment which was dropped as an option by NZQA and competence-based assessment as exemplified in unit standards). Essays with a somewhat more critical bent can be found in the journal Delta: Policy and practice in education 48: 1 (1996). For an article comparing four differing assessment regimes with a focus on English, see Terry Locke (1997). "An essay on assessment: The English casebook." Waikato Journal of Education 3, 93-118.

In 1997, a project team of HODs English and tertiary educators established the English Study Design project. The project team was driven by a concern that widespread resistance to unit standards was posing the danger that the country might find itself ghettoised in terms of qualifications, with poor schools using unit standards and well-to-do schools opting for private, examinations-based qualifications. It sought to develop and trial a senior secondary school English programme that would be standards-based, combine internal and external assessment and test new forms of moderation. For an evaluations of the first year of the ESD trial, see Cedric Hall, Report of the 1998 year 12 trial. For a report evaluating the use of an external reference test in order to moderate internally assessed grades see The 1999 Reference Test Trial.

In response to wide-ranging and serious concerns with the shape of the NQF and perceived shortcomings with unit standards, the Government released a Green Paper on national qualifications in June, 1997. For a discussion and analysis, see Cedric Hall. (1998). "The National Qualifications Framework Green Paper: What future for the Framework?" New Zealand Annual Review of Education 7:1997, 29-57. (Hall argued that the Green Paper was an advance on the then NQF but identified 17 considerations a new qualifications would have to address should it be implemented successfully.)

Achievement 2001 was launched by the then Minister of Education on 5 November, 1998. The new system of secondary schools qualifications, the National Certificate of Educational Achievement or NCEA will be implemented for year 11 students in 2002. You can visit the Ministry of Education Jump-off to explore the NCEA and download English-related materials, including the matrix, achievement standards, sample activities and exemplars.You can also visit the NZQA's NCEA jump-off and use it ask key questions and sample external examination papers.

The secondary teachers union, the Post-Primary Teachers Association (PPTA) has voiced cautious approval of the NCEA. But their stance and there methods for canvassing and analysing teacher opinion has been questioned, for example, by Dennis Spence in a Submission to the PPTA.

As far as English teachers are concerned, the development of the English matrix and the nature of the achievement standards have been matters of both interest and concern. If you're interested in tracking the evolution of the English NCEA matrix, check out The Achievement Standard Matrix for English on the English Study Design site. To track the evolution of the NCEA achievement standards for English, check out The Nature of Achievement Standards. For a discussion of these, see Terry Locke (1999). "Standards-based Assessment in English: Take 3'. Waikato Journal of Education 5, 13-31.

Needless to say, government websites provide a positive view of the NCEA. While generally endorsing the NCEA, the NZATE (New Zealand Association for the Teaching of English) has publicly voiced reservations about aspects of the reform. For a balanced critique, and one commissed by the Ministry of Education (but not immediately released), check out the report by Professor Paul Black (King's College, London. (NB. The link takes you to a Ministry summary. For the actual report, you'll need to scroll to the bottom of the page and download the actual report as a PDF file.)

For contrasting views from English teachers on the NCEA check out the December 1999 (Number 39) issue of English in Aotearoa. There you will find articles by Phil Coogan ("Achievement 2001: a personal perspective") and Terry Locke ("Lacks of Achievement 2001").

For other critical comment, see Cedric Hall ("National Certificate of Educational Achievement: Issues related to Reliability, Validity and Manageability". New Zealand Annual Review of Education 10, 2000 and "Reliability, validity and manageability?" NZ Education Review, July 21, 2000), Michael Irwin: Business Roundtable ("What teachers and parents should know about the NCEA"), Terry Locke ("Blending internal and external assessment: the English Study Design experience". NZ Education Review, 18 August, 2000) and Dennis Spence ("Response to David Hood").

Articles in the New Zealand Education Review arguing the merits of the NCEA include: Tim McMahon. "New standards of reliability" (July 21, 2000), David Hood "The tyranny of the minority" (April 2000, 2001) and David Hood "Give the system a chance" (June 29, 2001).

Meanwhile, the English Study Design project has become transformed into the University of Waikato Certificate of Studies: English, a qualification owned and operated by the University and approved by NZQA. The advent of this qualification means that secondary school English departments, unhappy with the principles and practices of "achievement standard" English can opt for an alternative NCEA pathway.