Are end-of-year exams becoming an option only for the elite?

Data show students at underprivileged high schools are less likely to sit exams than those from wealthy families – with entry rates for the poorest pupils almost half those of the richest.

Instead, low-decile students are more likely to enter internal assessments, sometimes gaining their National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) without ever sitting a traditional three-hour test.

Some educators say the statistics show evidence of schools using the qualification to suit their students’ needs, but others believe it raises questions about what’s on offer for less privileged pupils.

“One thing about a qualification system, it should be that no matter what your school or background, you’ve got the opportunity to achieve,” said Secondary Principals’ Association president Sandy Pasley.

“I think exams are part of that. I think they are valuable, particularly if students are going on to tertiary study.”

NCEA data showed that in the past four years, the proportion of students sitting the external assessments as against taking internal assessments has dropped across the board.

Low-decile, Maori and Pasifika students were less likely to sit exams compared with their high-decile, Pakeha or Asian peers. For example, last year, 20 per cent of NCEA entries at decile 1 came from external testing, while at decile 10, 37 per cent of entries were external.

The lowest entry rate was for Maori at decile 1, where just 10 per cent of entries came from exams.

The data, obtained by the Herald under the Official Information Act, also showed low-decile Maori and Pasifika students were less likely to pass exams, or to gain Merit or Excellence grades. This means a less competitive grade on application to limited-entry university courses, such as medicine or engineering.

The disparities can be illustrated by subjects such as dance, one of the few classes taken by similar numbers of high-decile Pakeha students and low-decile Maori and Pasifika students.

Data showed that of 550 decile 10 Pakeha entries, 100 were in externals. More than 90 per cent passed, 15 per cent with Excellence. But of 630 Pasifika decile 1 entries, only 13 were in externals. Only 30 per cent passed, none with Excellence.

Educators said there were several reasons students at lower deciles had lower exam uptake – including the fact students at those schools were less likely to take subjects that included exams in the first place – whether that be physical education or art; or more vocational subjects such as hospitality.

Internal assessments were also considered better suited to students with lower literacy and numeracy, as teachers could “scaffold” students into the assessment, allowing them to sit it only when they were ready, and resit it if appropriate.

In contrast, exams were more unpredictable. With lower pass rates, they could be seen as a risky choice for low-decile students who didn’t sit as many standards in each subject, and therefore were more reliant on passing every single one to get their NCEA.

“That’s the difference,” said Association of Mathematics Teachers president Gillian Frankcom-Burgess.

“High-decile schools will do the whole lot of standards, whereas at low deciles teachers will restrict the number they sit, which allows students to concentrate on things they’re going to cope with.”

At many schools it was now common for students to act “strategically” – studying for three exam papers but only choosing to do the one or two they think they would be best at, particularly if they weren’t confident in a subject.

Chris Duggan, president of the Association of Science Educators, said although that was good for some students, it could also cause problems later – particularly if schools were “teaching to the test”. “The main issue is for students going to university – if they’re only taught part of the course they’re going to struggle.”

Green Party education spokeswoman Catherine Delahunty said that in addition to the effects of poverty, the data showed the impact of a Pakeha education system.

“We need to ask, do English-medium schools have the skills they need to support Maori and Pasifika kids?” she said.

“I think we have built a system that doesn’t meet their needs. I think a lot of the time we are just doing what’s most convenient for the rest of us.”

The Qualifications Authority said it wanted all students, regardless of their ethnicity or socio-economic status, to reach their full potential.

NCEA contains a variety of standards per subject, which are assessed internally (in class) or externally (by exam). Each has a certain number of credits. Students need 80 credits to pass each level of NCEA.

Source: The New Zealand Herald

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