Now I'M the Headline!

In an unprecedented two blog posts in two days, I’m following up my More than a Headline post yesterday, due to a second article in the NZ Herald, published this morning, External exams - An essential check, or a 'colonial system'?

It is certainly unnecessary to justify Kia Aroha College’s research-informed decision to internally assess all of their students’ learning, that is not my role, and that is not what this post is about. The results, and Kia Aroha’s students, speak for themselves. However, I feature in the headline and I am quoted: "Exams are a colonial system," she declares. "Exams test your memory and that's all. They don't actually help you to apply that learning in any way” – which is close enough to what I argued. Not sure that I “declared” it!

What I do want to do is read between the lines—what does this article imply, and how is this relevant to the current review of NCEA and the “co-design lab” to be held by the ministerial advisory group in Wellington this week?

At the heart of the issue is the age-old debate between formative and summative assessment or, as Terry Crooks (2011), one of our most credible assessment experts explains, assessment OF learning (summative) and assessment FOR learning (formative). He describes assessment of learning as involving, “judging, describing and reporting student educational outcomes (such as their knowledge, skills and attitudes) at a particular point in time.” He provides this definition of assessment for learning developed by a panel of 31 international assessment scholars meeting in Dunedin, New Zealand in 2009:

Assessment for learning is part of everyday practice by students, teachers and peers that seeks, reflects upon and responds to information from dialogue, demonstration and observation in ways that enhance ongoing learning.

The NZQA website itself states:

It has been traditional to draw final conclusions about achievement from what has been called ‘summative’ assessment. However, this approach may overlook some existing evidence of achievement or not show learners how to close the gap in their learning, because it provides no explanation of where they went wrong or how to improve.

So, what’s the problem with internal assessment with its built-in requirements for rigorous national moderation and verification? None, as far as I am concerned. I can’t think of a time in my adult life, in all of the roles I have engaged in: learner, educator, writer, teacher, school leader, researcher, parent, grandparent, business owner, academic, education consultant, where I have had to sit a written exam—other than a driving test possibly, a very long time ago, and one academic paper at Master’s level. The argument that exams prepare you for university simply doesn’t wash with me either – I have a PhD – no exams! I do remember discussing, listening, reading, researching, investigating, comparing, interviewing, collaborating, writing, reflecting, hypothesising, trialling, experimenting, revising, arguing, debating, and reaching conclusions based on all that ongoing work. None of that felt “easy.”

Why do we create a system where external assessment is actually unnecessary, then lament its loss and go looking for alternatives? Is this parental expectation, and some sort of high-stakes status contest, masquerading as “accountability”? What is wrong with us that makes us think that if young people are successful at something, particularly if they are brown, we should get worried about the task’s rigour and its credibility? Don’t we actually want more of our children to achieve, or are we OK with this only being some of our children?

Where is the value in a three-hour exam window where you regurgitate information – literally regurgitate more than that, according to the young Grammar scholar, who says that hearing of first-year university students crying and vomiting in exams, “because they were not used to it,” was one of his incentives to get used to the stress involved. Do we pat ourselves on the back and think “job well done” when we prepare them so well, they don’t throw up? Is that the “grit” or the resilience we seem to think it’s so important to teach our kids? The young people I work with don’t need more resilience or grit. They have it in abundance. They begin developing it from the day they are born. They need it to survive in our society and in our education system. I’m reminded of André Perry’s claim that “Young black and brown boys don’t need ‘grit,’ they need schools to stop being racist.” Exactly!

The Ministry of Education states that NCEA papers requiring external assessments are declining and internal assessments increasing. The accompanying Herald article, Education Ministry questions NCEA's credibility - internal assessment seen as 'easier', part of the same investigation, reports that internal assessments are resulting in more Excellence grades. Good! Obviously schools and students find them more relevant to today’s rapidly changing learning environment.  

Where do we, as adults, rely on the stored fundamental knowledge in our long term memory—the skill the Auckland Grammar principal claims as a rationale for exams—to complete the range of tasks we face in our professional and working lives? That would be sloppy of us, given that the doubling of accumulated knowledge in the world was estimated to take between one and two years at the beginning of the 21st century, and now doubles every 12 hours, and when the vast range of information at our fingertips makes it more effective to know how to learn “just in time”, and often just enough to solve a problem or get a job completed.

The use of the word “traditional” in the NZQA quote above is the reason I claim it’s a colonial construct. Just because we have always done something, does not mean it is the right approach. Not when it has never worked for some of our children. Yesterday I talked about decolonising the curriculum. Decolonising assessment is an urgent part of that process. Our “traditional” education system is a colonial system. As the Kia Aroha College Warrior-Researchers found, (months of work, internally assessed – Excellence grades – verified by the overwhelming positive and informed response from NZ’s university academics and professors in their Keynote audience) it’s also a racist system.

That’s what lies between the lines in the Herald article, the same issue my More than a Headline post exposed—the racism experienced daily by Māori and Pasifika children and youth in our schools. Both between the lines of the article, and blatantly in some lines, are innuendo, bias, and inaccuracy. Let me be specific about some of the implications embedded in the story:

QUOTE: "The difference is we are not killing ours [students] with kindness. We are saying we are preparing you for what is to come in an academic environment where you should be assessed in a variety of ways and external exams are part of that.”

Implication: Schools that choose not to externally assess are “killing their students with kindness” – that this is a ‘soft’ option. It is inaccurate to state that this is preparation for an academic environment. More and more university courses do not rely on external assessment. More universities are realising that they have to change as well. Take Massey University’s decision, for example, to be “Tiriti-led.”

QUOTE: "The students we think will struggle with Cambridge we point towards NCEA… In Grammar's Year 12 last year, only 39 per cent of European students and 37 per cent of Asians, but 83 per cent of Māori and 88 per cent of Pasifika students, entered NCEA.”      

Implication: Māori and Pasifika students at Grammar ‘struggle’ with Cambridge (and would therefore have a negative impact on the overall data). The Warrior-Researchers’ 2017 question is relevant here – We know we are not less intelligent than Pākehā so how come they don’t know how to teach us?”

QUOTE: Counting only those who entered NCEA in Year 12, last year’s Level 2 achievement rates were 81 per cent at Grammar and an extraordinary 97 per cent at Kia Aroha.

Why is this extraordinary? Would it be extraordinary if it was the other way round? So Kia Aroha’s results were higher than Grammar’s then?

QUOTE: However, these dramatic gains for boys, poorer and Māori/Pasifika students were achieved by taking advantage of NCEA’s vast range of 9360 available courses, ranging from “Demonstrate understanding of atomic and nuclear physics” to “Experience day tramps”.                                                                                               

Implication: This statement immediately follows the above “extraordinary” comment. It implies that the high result of Kia Aroha is probably because of the choice of “easy” courses e.g. “Experience Day Tramps.” Simon Collins asked questions about subjects in his interview with Kia Aroha students. They told him that their NCEA standards were from English, History, Maths, Physics, Te Reo Maori, Dance, Tongan Language – and other university-approved subjects. The Warrior-Researcher investigation into racism was assessed for Level 4 standards in English. Not a day tramp in sight!

QUOTE: At Kia Aroha College, 35 per cent of Year 13 students last year achieved UE. Only 78 per cent even tried for Level 3, and 44 per cent of those got UE. At Auckland Grammar, 36 per cent of Year 13 students entered for Level 3, and 66 per cent of those achieved UE (24 per cent of the whole Year 13 roll).

Implication: Firstly the use of language “Only 78 per cent even tried for Level 3” (Kia Aroha) versus “At Auckland Grammar, 36 per cent of Year 13 students entered for Level 3” – not “only 36 per cent even tried.” Secondly, what is not explained is that these statistics are taken from what NZQA call “participation-based” results. These count the number of students attaining NCEA as a proportion of the number who entered, including those who received insufficient credits to achieve the qualification. No students were prevented from “trying” to achieve Level 3 at Kia Aroha, unlike Grammar, where the teacher confirms they make selections based on ability. NZQA is changing from participation-based to new enrolment-based measures in January 2019.

QUOTE: Schools in the richest three deciles still managed a small lift in their UE achievement rates from a median of 66 per cent of their Year 13 students in 2008 to 69 per cent last year.

But the median achievement rates actually dropped 3 points to 45 per cent in the middle deciles, and slipped 1 point to a miserable 27 per cent in the poorest deciles.      

Again, the language, “a miserable 27 per cent,”  a complete negating of the impact of poverty, and we are right back to the achievement gap! Kendi (2016) asks these questions:

  • · What if, all along, our well-meaning efforts at closing the achievement gap has been opening the door to racist ideas?

  • What if different environments actually cause different kinds of achievement rather than different levels of achievement?

  • What if our educational system focused on opening minds instead of filling minds and testing how full they are?

  • What if the way we measure intelligence shows not only our racism but our elitism?

What if, indeed! Year 13, Kia Aroha College Warrior-Researcher, Foloiola Finau, is featured in all three of these Herald articles, so I want to give her the last word.

Foloiola quotes photographer and former Peace Corps volunteer, Leanne Yanabu, who describes racism as an invisible wind, that is virtually invisible if you are the one who benefits from it. “When the force is working for you, you feel you are progressing under your own power. But in fact, you are getting a tremendous boost. You have to look very hard at the effects of that force on others to perceive what they are going through.”

Foloiola says, “I like this description because it captures what many definitions don’t mention – the privilege of those who have the power in our society – and the advantage that position gives you. It explains why we have to work so much harder “against the wind” that keeps blowing you back.”

Foloiola is right, and we as an education system and a country have to work much harder to change that.