I had a good weekend. On Saturday morning I gave some tuition to the Remuera girl – she’d just had her NCEA mocks and has the real thing in a fortnight. I’m still struggling to get my head around NCEA. The maths exam lasts three hours; in that time you have to complete five “mini-papers” on the topics of Number, Algebra, Graphs, Geometry and Probability. For each paper you’re given one of four grades: Excellence, Merit, Achieved and Not Achieved. She loves geometry and blew me away with her perfect paper on that topic. She also got Excellence in the probability paper, but “only” Achieved in the other three. So what does that equate to overall, I ask. It turns out there is no overall maths grade. In the words of OMC, how bizarre. The maths topics are treated as different subjects, even though they form part of the same exam and the concepts are very much intertwined. This makes no sense to me. I also found it strange that there were no numerical marks, such as 8/10, anywhere on the paper. On the flip side, I thought the questions were well constructed and required broad mathematical knowledge, and I don’t think they were any easier than what I had to deal with in 1996.
So what makes a fair exam system? The norm-referencing used in the old School Cert was controversial but despite its shortcomings was fairer (in my opinion) than what we have now. For something as complex as maths, standards-based assessment doesn’t work. So your son Jake can “do” number but can’t “do” algebra – what the hell does that even mean? Nothing, if you ask me. Secondly, exams have to be substantially different from one year to the next; difficulty will therefore also vary from year to year, sometimes significantly, just by random chance. How do the examiners adjust for this, if at all? The fairest (and easiest) way is to say, “Jake, you scored in the 65th percentile.” Sure, under this method you can’t tell if standards are improving, but neither can you under NCEA. Finally, every mark should count. I get the impression that some kids can’t be bothered studying because a few marks here or there are unlikely to make much difference. I’ve never really liked the whole concept of grades, and I certainly don’t like only having four of them. There’s a huge gap between 55% and 69%, but if they both just get you a bog-standard Achieved, no wonder there’s a lot of students out there who can’t be arsed.
At least everyone in New Zealand does the same exam, unlike in the UK where there are several examining boards with names like MEG and SEG and SMEG (OK, maybe not SMEG), each with its own syllabus and corresponding exam. It’s undoubtedly easier to pass under certain exam boards.
I never meant this to turn into a rant about educational assessment. I’ll cover the rest of my weekend, as well as tonight’s tennis matches, in my next post.
By the way, my work has been extended to the end of November. For my mental health as much as anything, that has to be good news.