Unclothed Emperor

Poor Qualifications Exposed

The education establishment, which is made up of educrats, principals, many teachers, teacher unions and politicians, have long celebrated the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) testing system in New Zealand secondary schools.  Recently, however, tertiary institutions provided anecdotal and experiential testimony that our official education system is failing to prepare students for study at universities, colleges, and other tertiary institutions.  The report was prepared by the Tertiary Education Commission–a government quango.

According to the NZ Listener:

A confidential Tertiary Education Commission report reveals profound and widespread concerns about the way NCEA prepares students for further study. It paints a picture of substandard mathematics and science education, NCEA students coming unstuck in their first year at university and tertiary providers scrambling to come up with their own diagnostic tests and remedial courses. The document is a summary of formal reports from 15 tertiary institutions – universities and polytechnics – that offer engineering courses.

How does the problem manifest?
  According to the report there are three aspects to the failures and inadequacies of NCEA at tertiary level (at least as far as engineering goes):

The problems the report flags with NCEA fall into three main categories:
• students getting confused or being given poor advice on subject choice;
• those who do the right subjects still being unprepared for tertiary level study; and
• the system not creating a good work ethic.

Let’s address the latter issue first–failure to create a good work ethic.  We can understand how the NCEA system can be blamed for this particular failing.  It works on a system of achievement credits.  If a student achieves a certain number of achievement credits in a subject, they are deemed to be able to matriculate at a university.  But students focus upon achieving credits (often during the school year, via internal assessments) not on mastering subjects.  Maybe some would say the distinction is artificial: to achieve credits in a subject necessarily requires an adequate level of subject mastery.  It does not.  More to the point, once credits are achieved, secondary students are tempted to cruise–hence, the system does not create a good work ethic. 

We can illustrate this point via contrast.  Not so long ago in UK universities a student studying for a BA qualification faced one set of exams–after three years study.  What this forced upon students was a work ethic of hard application over a lengthy period of time.  Not only were students confronted with the subject matter of the month, but they could not allow themselves to forget what they had learned two years ago.  The NCEA is the opposite: by issuing credits, students can put that aspect of achievement aside; the more credits they “earn”, the more they can cruise.  We have witnessed students sitting NCEA exams who leave after the first (obligatory) 45 minutes, having not written more than the odd sentence in the answer book.  When asked why, the response usually given is that they did not need to sit the exam; they had already achieved sufficient credits to move on.  They were in cruise mode. 

Dale Carnegie, a professor at Victoria University’s School of Engineering and Computer Science, prepared his university’s submission . . . in conjunction with the Wellington Institute of Technology. He tells the Listener: “I would absolutely stand up in front of anyone and say that for the bulk of the students that Engineering sees, the study habits that they have developed and been permitted to use for NCEA have adversely affected their ability to survive university engineering study.”

Carnegie’s analysis shows that students coming into Victoria with NCEA Merit or Excellence grades are coping well. But most of their engineering students get into university based on “Achieved” grades. Anecdotal evidence is that some of those students “don’t sufficiently understand the subject and we feel that, historically, they would have been awarded a fail grade”.  Carnegie’s submission warns that students tend to “game play” NCEA at school, then run into problems when they realise this is not possible at university.

But it’s not just work habits.  Students in engineering schools also lack basic numeracy, implying the academic standards in schools are far too low. 

On the frontline, the report shows providers are telling the TEC that even when students pass the right NCEA subjects at school, “the majority of students are still unprepared for tertiary-level mathematics and physics”. Poor grounding in mathematics “was highlighted as a major issue for almost all providers … Some prospective engineering students are not equipped with basic numeracy skills.”

We do not mean to imply that the NCEA system is an abject failure in everything.  But it must get the basics right.  To certify students as qualified to undertake tertiary study in any subject, when in fact they cannot cope, lacking the basic fundamentals of further study in that subject has to represent a fundamental failure.  The success of education is not to be measured by the qualifications a student achieves (which lamentably is the chief focus of  NCEA–and of the Government, for that matter), but what they can go on to learn and master next.  

Meanwhile, a warning siren is sounding for parents who want their children to go on to tertiary study: do not assume that NCEA achievements will be a currency of value when it comes to university or polytechnic study.  It would pay to be duly sceptical of the bullish pronouncements of the government schools, the educrats, and the teacher unions and the New Zealand Qualifications Authority (which administers NCEA).  They are all talking their own book. 
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