The ex­ams don’t work, they just make it worse

Sunday Star-Times - - NEWS - Jonathan Milne

The days are length­en­ing; Hal­loween gives way to Guy Fawkes and Di­wali. The weight of the year be­gins to lift ahead of sum­mer.

Yet, as you drop a fiver on the sweep­stake and gather around the TV for the Mel­bourne Cup on Tues­day evening, spare a thought for New Zealand’s sec­ondary school stu­dents. Few of them will be re­lax­ing. The first NCEA ex­ams are on Wednes­day morn­ing: so­cial stud­ies, dance and art his­tory. Thou­sands will troop into halls and lec­ture the­atres for ex­ter­nal ex­ams that have changed very lit­tle since you and I sat them.

Stu­dents know ex­ams don’t work; they just test one’s abil­ity to re­gur­gi­tate in­for­ma­tion.

But when elec­tions roll round, the stu­dents don’t vote – their par­ents do. And par­ents de­mand the three Rs and old­fash­ioned ex­ams. Th­ese ex­ams may ask stu­dents to solve an al­ge­bra prob­lem; they won’t chal­lenge them to take on big, real-life prob­lems.

Teach­ers have a say­ing: you can’t fat­ten a pig by weigh­ing it more often. That is to say, no amount of as­sess­ment will help kids learn more. That is why the govern­ment’s NCEA re­view is wel­come – and over­due.

More than 16,000 peo­ple have made sub­mis­sions or at­tended work­shops or hui to con­trib­ute their thoughts. ‘‘Ev­ery­one agrees there is too much as­sess­ment go­ing on,’’ re­view chair Jeremy Baker tells me this week­end. ‘‘We re­ally want schools, kids, to be fo­cus­ing on the es­sen­tials in a sub­ject area.’’

First, we need to stop in­cen­tivis­ing stu­dents to ‘‘credit farm’’ to get their qual­i­fi­ca­tions at the ex­pense of real learn­ing.

Se­condly, in­for­ma­tion changes by the year (did you re­ally need to learn the cap­i­tal cities of the world?) but skills are for life. We need peo­ple with crit­i­cal think­ing skills, the abil­ity to work to­gether, cre­ativ­ity and con­fi­dence.

Fi­nally, we don’t need ex­ter­nal ex­ams at lev­els 1, 2 and 3. Next year’s Level 1 NCEA ex­ams will quite prob­a­bly be the last. And if our fo­cus is on the fu­ture, rather than wal­low­ing in nos­tal­gia like that fat­tened pig, then the Level 2 and 3 ex­ams should meet their end soon af­ter.

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