Is NCEA putting too much stress on our teens?


For several years, I have been worried that schools have become Institutions of Measurement rather than Institutions of Learning. NCEA and its inevitable League Tables, national targets (such as 85% of students achieving NCEA Level 2), and National Standards in Literacy and Numeracy have all combined in such a way that schools seem to be spending all their time measuring and reporting, and subsequently moving away from inspiring a deep love of learning.

Without doubt, this constant measuring and reporting has had a dramatic and negative impact on teacher workload and job satisfaction. But what about the impact on our young people?

Anecdotally, I know that students are suffering huge amounts of unnecessary and unhealthy stress and anxiety as a result of the demands of continual assessment for qualifications. I have heard it described as if students were in a cycle race, racing each other as hard as they can, but getting no closer to the finishing line.

In February 2015, the Education Review Office (ERO) published its report on Wellbeing for Young People’s Success in Secondary School. While its findings supported my anecdotal experience, it was still somewhat alarming to read that ERO noted that in all the 60+ secondary schools it looked at for its report that, “the key factor was that students in all schools were experiencing an assessment-driven curriculum and assessment anxiety” and “In many schools, the only people who understood the overall impact of the curriculum and the competing demands on them were the students.”

In designing Hobsonville Point Secondary School, which only opened in 2014, we were determined to create a school where students were engaged in deep challenge and inquiry, in order to be inspired and empowered lifelong learners. We knew that unnecessary and unhealthy stress and anxiety were not conducive to deep learning and understanding, and that if assessment was our main focus then learning would be superficial; just enough to pass tests.

We questioned why our students were subjected to three years of high-stakes internal and external assessment from Years 11-13. No other country operates such a model. We also questioned why schools would be focusing on students achieving NCEA Level 1 when it was a qualification of little currency: NCEA Level 1 is not necessary to gain Level 2 or 3, it is not a prerequisite for any tertiary study, and it is not a pathway to meaningful employment.

Despite this, most schools have their students in Year 11 cover six subjects, with anything between 18-24 credits being assessed in each subject for Level 1 (a total of 110-140 over the year) to gain a qualification of little value. To do that, the focus changes from the joy of learning and discovery to passing a series of tests. These students then move into Year 12, and while they now need to gather only 60 credits at NCEA Level 2, they tend to be exposed to another package of 110-140 credits. I have seen many students steadily disengage from learning and achieving over their three senior years, and their falling grades (starting with Excellence grades in Year 11 and ending with Achieved in Year 13) are representative of this. They have suffered from assessment exhaustion.

In deciding what we would do at Hobsonville Point Secondary School, we put the following two principles in the driving seat: To not contribute to unnecessary and unhealthy levels of stress and anxiety, and to not sacrifice the focus on deep challenge and inquiry.

Therefore, from the start of Year 11, students go on a two-year journey to a quality NCEA Level 2. This means that in Year 11, their target is 20-40 quality credits (Merits and Excellences) at Level 1 and/or 2, and in Year 12, their target is a further 50-60 quality credits at Level 2. This means that over two years, our students are exposed to no more than 140 credits on their way to a quality Level 2, rather than the 240-280 experienced by students in most schools. More schools are beginning to explore such an approach after investigating our model and I encourage even more to do so.

Parents also have to play a part in reducing the anxieties around assessment and qualifications. Many principals tell me they would like to pursue such a model but are concerned about the push-back from their parent community. For the sake of our young people and their wellbeing, I implore parents to be open to thinking about assessment and qualifications in different ways, and to have trust in the teaching profession who have your child’s academic and wellbeing interests at the heart of their decision-making.

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