Last week the Otago Daily Times ran an opinion piece on the problems of using NCEA results to rank students for entrance to university programmes.
Here lies a peculiar problem relating to assessment in our schools. Assessment under NCEA is standards-based. Student attainment is measured against objective standards rather than against each other.
For those of us who teach NCEA, it is obvious there are major anomalies in the results generated under this system. The pass rates for work marked internally are usually much higher than for external assessments, usually done under exam conditions. There are also significant discrepancies in pass rates for different subjects and for different units within a subject.
Any use of NCEA marks for entrance to university will need to come from externally assessed units only. This is the only way to guarantee a fair comparison between students.
It is ridiculous to try to equate a unit of knowledge in physics with a unit of knowledge in economics or graphics, in terms of difficulty. Yet the results this system generates are going to become very important in determining whether a student gains entry to a tertiary course.
This problem is not an issue with NCEA, it is a factor in any education system with different subjects. The easiest way to deal with this is have prerequisites for programmes that require certain subjects. For instance to get into a Bachelor of Science you would need a certain number of credits from 3 of the following subjects: Calculus, Statistics, Biology, Chemistry, Physics. Furthermore to get into a major in biology you would need a minimum number of credits in year 13 biology. This is very similar to how the old Bursary system used to work and can be easily reintroduced.
To rank students a system similar to that of a grade point average can be used where Achieved = 1, Merit = 2, Excellence = 3 this is summed and then divided by the total number of credits available for that subject – typically 24, but if you excluded internal assessments it will be less. Using this system would encourage all students and schools to teach the full course load to students rather than selectively excluding some units of work like they currently do.
The ODT article continues with this example:
Here’s a simple illustration of the problem faced by a university admissions officer. Two prospective students apply for entry to a degree. One candidate has 2 excellences, 2 merits, 10 achieved and 6 not achieved in his final results. The other pupil has 3 merits and 17 achieved in her results. Who is the superior candidate?
Under a simple GPA system the first student would score:
(2 * 3 + 2 * 2+ 10)/20 = 20/20 = 1
The second student would score:
(3 * 2 + 17)/20 = 23/20 = 1.15
Under this simple GPA system the second student would be ranked superior to the first student. I believe that this is a fair system, even though on initial look the first student had scored two excellence marks they had also failed 6 credits which is over 25% of the marks available, whereas the second student had passed all units of credits just not with any form of distinction.
NCEA is fundamentally flawed in that it does not allocate marks to students and instead just consists of four buckets that students are classified into. This means that any form of ranking among these buckets will be controversial and there will always been anomalies where one very good student will miss out and another not so good one will scrape through. But this is the unfortunate nature of the beast that is NCEA and until someone has the vision and the willingness to fix the madness these problems will continue.