A case for, and against, NCEA exams

14 August 2018
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Professor Gavin Brown

NCEA must retain exams for equity and integrity, argues Professor Gavin Brown.

Examinations have a proper and legitimate place in secondary schooling. As in all assessment, formal examinations exist to lead to valid decisions and actions concerning the competencies, proficiencies, and capabilities of young people. 

  • Imagine a world where random selection is used to award opportunities instead of a society that properly assigns varying opportunities according to merit and worth. 
  • Imagine a world where those with money or connections can buy those same opportunities regardless of their proficiency or competency. 
  • Imagine a world where opportunities are given to those who are cleverest at cheating, instead of one where honour and integrity are rewarded. 

In such a world the outcomes you or your own child would experience would not depend on ability or proficiency. Instead those who are better connected, more duplicitous, or blessed by dumb luck would profit, thus undermining the very basis of our modern society.

While examinations may not be perfect they are vastly superior to the alternatives – they are about equity and integrity.

Those who oppose examinations often use the argument that they cause distress therefore should be abandoned. But this is a ludicrous idea –it is part of becoming a mature individual to learn how to face difficulties and overcome them. To avoid emotionally distressing events and processes is not a recipe for development but rather one for inadequacy and limited futures. Surely just because something is anxiety-inducing or frightening does not mean that we should avoid learning how to cope with it. Besides, all assessments are stressful, no matter how they are administered. Young people who cannot learn to cope with their fears in the sheltered environment of schooling are limited in their future prospects.

To move onto my point about equity. Equity here refers not to providing all identical outcomes, but rather providing to each according to their capabilities and needs. This is the groundwork of a meritocratic society. Each person has their own unique strengths, abilities, and capacities. While all of us may wish to have the privileges and rewards associated with being, for example, a brain surgeon, not all of us have the intellectual resources, motivated dedication, or financial and emotional support to achieve that goal. 

In such a case, how should we identify those best suited for that role? In modern societies we use examinations because they are equitable. Wherever you might be in the nation, whoever your family might be, however wealthy or poor your situation is in an exam situation you are treated the same way as the most privileged young people of society. And equally you have the same opportunity to demonstrate your capacity because examinations are marked without fear of or favour towards the test-taker and his or her family. 

Many teachers naturally become emotionally committed to helping their own students. It's only natural that they want to help them, want them to succeed, and that could colour their judgment. Instead, in examinations a student’s performance is evaluated by an independent marker who is not influenced by in class behaviour or snide comments made throughout the year. This means your child has an equal chance to achieve the opportunities that might otherwise only go to the children of the very wealthy or the well-connected. 

An exam score of 95 percent has the same value and merit no matter where it is observed or obtained, and has the same positive effect on the test-taker. Thus, exams fulfil society’s need for equity of treatment regardless of background. 

My second point is that examinations establish integrity in decision-making around opportunities and rewards. Upon entry into an examination room, the identity of the test-taker is verified against the authorised list of expected test-takers. This means that the person taking the examination is the person who was meant to be taking the examination and that any rewards accruing to that examination go to and arise from the person who took the exam. 

It is not surprising that take-home coursework may not be done by the person who submits the work to be assessed and evaluated. Contract cheating, copied work from the Internet, and overly zealous assistance from friends or family all lead to the possibility that the work being assessed was not genuinely that of the student who submitted it. However, under examination conditions with invigilation, society can be assured that the work is genuinely that of the test-taker and has been completed without unfair assistance or cheating. Consequently the opportunities awarded or denied to test-takers have credibility in the eyes of society – the results belong to the person whom we saw taking the exam and who was supposed to do so. 

Without integrity, our society breaks down. If we cannot be sure that the work done by Johnny is really done by Johnny, how can we be sure that Johnny deserves the rewards that come with that work? And opportunities given to Johnny generally imply that Jane does not get the same opportunities, thus devaluing trust in the very currency of education.
 

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Dr Maree Davies

NCEA exams stifle confidence, choices and deep thinking, argue the University of Auckland's Dr Maree Davies and Gareth Haddon from Aorere College.

MRI scans on adolescents tell us their pre-frontal cortext is not fully developed, therefore they don’t have good planning and executive thinking until their mid-20s. Furthermore, neuroscientists have discovered that when we hit adolescence, our level of dopamine, a neurochemical that drives us to seek reward, drops. However, when stimulated by novelty, excitement or fun, the intensity of the dopamine release is much greater in an adolescent than an adult - which explains why they seek reward regularly.  

But all we hear is the negative side of adolescents seeking this dopamine hit. We are constantly reminded that adolescents are always complaining, that they are bored, drive too fast, drink too much, they are rude and always on their phones but it’s okay, because adolescence is just a phase and they will grow out it. 

But what if we flip what we know about adolescents and take the positive view that, if we aren’t thinking in a fully logical and rational way, isn’t this a great time to be given loads of opportunity for creativity? If an adolescent’s dopamine hit is much greater, then shouldn’t teaching and learning in secondary schools be novel, creative, authentic, real and yes, fun? Secondary schools should focus on keeping opportunities wide open so students can try music, writing, art, drama, science, maths, financial literacy, art history and life skills such as conflict resolution until the end of Year 13.

But instead, we force students to narrow down their choices, lock into pathways from the age of 15 and subjects with exams turn many off.  They choose pathways that don’t have external exams, including students more than capable of learning and achieving, or simply don’t turn up for exams – easier to do this and save face with peers than try hard, turn up and fail.  

While this is not a reason alone to abolish exams, it should force us to consider the underlying reasoning and perceived relevance. These are students that need confidence built at school to prepare for what lies beyond, and that confidence is unlikely to come from a traditional exam system.  

We see students preparing for externals often fearful of their own ideas. They have an inflated opinion of their teacher's ideas, and a mind-set that information = intelligence.  In contrast, students preparing for internal assessment are collaborative, more inclined to take risks and be creative, and more likely to challenge, question, or criticise what is presented to them. Many students who lack confidence to sit exams find internal work more motivating as they learn with peers and around relevant topics.

Further, the very structure of NCEA tells students that exams are unimportant and so, depending on other influences such as home life, their relevance diminishes. Indeed, students tell us exams are not an accurate depiction of their reality, ability or intended job environment.  And how can we think exams are equitable when the fact is students with high cultural and social capital are more likely to succeed.  

Another fact we can add to our growing list against exams is that adolescents find ‘deep learning’ highly motivating.  Deep learning is about knowing a lot about a topic, thinking critically and analysing evidence to support what we think. It is about understanding why we hold our view, how our origins influenced our view and being able to consider who else in society might hold a different view to ours.

But encouraging deep learning takes time which teacher do not have.  And it is true – for the whole of term four, secondary students are revising. For an entire term the teacher throws self-efficacy out the window and instead tells students what to think and write to pass the highly atomised assessment criteria.

So given that we know adolescents respond to opportunities to think deeply, critically and creatively, and given that it is vital adolescents leave school having strong self-efficacy levels, why do we continue to assess with exams? Why do we force our 15-year-olds to choose one pathway, and shut down others from year 11?

We want to emphasise that getting rid of exams does not mean getting rid of knowledge, or that knowledge is not important. Ironically, teachers in an assessment-free environment would have more time to share their knowledge and assist students in gaining deep knowledge, instead of using an absurd amount of time telling students what to think and how to write for a three-hour exam.

Imagine the stunning authentic project work and solutions our talented and creative teenagers could come up with, without the noose around their neck of exams? And universities and employers could be provided with information about students’ ability to think, problem solve and collaborate – information far more useful than a tired and antiquated assessment system.

We want to see New Zealand heralded at top of the world again in terms of leadership in education. Are we really going to sit on our hands (again) and wait for the Scandinavians to come up with some stunning new assessment measure suitable for adolescents?

Professor Gavin Brown is associate dean, Learning, Development and Professional Practices in the University of Auckland’s Faculty of Education and Social Work.

Dr Maree Davies is a senior lecturer at the University of Auckland’s Faculty of Education and Social Work.

Used with permission from NewsroomA case for, and against, NCEA exams published on Tuesday 14 August 2018.