I was encouraged to hear of NZQA’s proposed changes to the way in which NCEA, the current and relatively new system for assessing secondary school students, is carried out. I was particularly buoyed by NZQA’s motive: “Rather than taking a 19th Century concept and applying that to the 21st-century technology, it’s best to think about whether the traditional way we test progress with an exam is still current and whether there might be other ways of assessing someone,” said chief executive Dr Karen Poutasi.
After all, it needn’t be said that this is a very different time to a century or two ago, when information was locked in books and high-skilled jobs less valued by our more agrarian and manual labour-driven economy. Yet, despite these monumental changes, school today looks much the same as it always has, and I’m not convinced that this most recent attempt at reform goes nearly far enough towards bridging the gap.
As far as I can tell—and it should be said that the details are sketchy at this point—the mooted system would amount to conducting exams in the very same way as before, but at a computer screen rather than with pen and paper. If it’s anything like the technology being trialled at Massey University, known as intuitive testing technology1, we can even expect video surveillance and cheat-detection software to be included.
As an intermediate step towards a more modern form of assessment, I don’t have a problem with this approach. However, if we are really having a discussion about the future of assessment and how it might look if it were finally brought up to date, we should be thinking far more broadly. I would suggest that we do away with exams altogether—memorising information is of little use at a time when the wealth of human knowledge can be accessed from the 4-inch screens found in the pockets of most New Zealanders today. Instead, the exam should simply be one tool at the teacher’s disposal, used as a means of reinforcing fundamental knowledge and addressing the areas in which students are facing difficulty, rather than as the end result itself.
Currently, the focus on assessment—whether internal, external or practice for either of the two—is constraining the ability of teachers to actively work with individual students, including those who are ahead and particularly those who are behind. Furthermore, the way that society operates today renders the traditional assessment model, whether in digital or paper form, inadequate at reflecting talent, at least the kind of talent and skills which we should be encouraging.