Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Barend Vlaardingerbroek: UE 2014 – A Plug for Meritocracy

The meritocratic ideal is a prominent aspect of the mindset of a ‘conservative liberal’ like yours truly. Essentially this means that what people get out of life ought to depend firstly and foremostly on what they put into it – the ‘merit’ they acquire through their own efforts. Like all ideals, the notion does not square entirely with observed reality.

A kid born into a stable, affluent family with professional parents has better life chances, on average, than most. But there are more than enough success stories of kids born into working-class families who made it big in the professions or in business to pour cold water over the deterministic assertion that birth is all that matters, particularly in countries such as NZ which many early European migrants went to precisely to get away from the restrictive social class structure of the ‘old country’.

The State’s role in meritocracy is the provision of equality of opportunity – the proverbial ‘level playing field’. The phrase ‘equality of opportunity’ has, like many, been hijacked by the social engineering clique and redefined so as to focus on outcomes for arbitrarily defined ‘groups’, but to us non-lefties it continues to mean treating people as individuals equally, without regard to whatever ‘group’ they belong to. In the all-important context of education, it translates into a ‘blind’ assessment and evaluation process at critical junctures such as the transition from school to university. This in turn brings in the importance of external examination systems – examinations that are devised, administered and processed by bodies outside the schools themselves. The tradition of having such exams leading to school exit qualifications began with the reforms of French education in the early 19th century that brought in the modern Baccalauréat in 1808. The British matriculation examination system kicked off 50 years later. In both countries’ systems, an important function of these terminating examinations was the alignment of upper secondary education with university. Later, with the advent of mass schooling, external exams were also introduced at the primary to secondary, and the lower to upper secondary, junctures. The global dissemination of the French and British education systems during the colonial era saw a proliferation of external exam systems. Over time, the exams at the lower points were dispensed with or, as transition rates to higher levels of schooling increased, weakened as filtration exams. But the ‘big one’ at the end of secondary schooling has remained a milestone in many young people’s lives, be it the French ‘Bac’, the English A-Levels, the Australian HSC or the Iranian ‘Konkur’, all the more so with increasing transition rates to tertiary education and ever hotter competition for admission to competitive-entry programmes especially at the university level.

External examination systems are large, complex and very expensive. They also tend to become ideological battlegrounds. Many education academics and teacher associations don’t like them. For decades, it has been argued that their ‘one shot’ nature is unrealistic, and that the emphasis they engender on pen-and-paper skills encourages rote-learning and ignores numerous other skills that students are meant to acquire. With the increasing professionalisation of teaching, teachers become resentful about the critical assessment decisions being in the hands of an examination bureaucracy. And of course some ‘groups’ don’t do as well in them as others. Some education systems abandoned them completely in favour of internal assessment. This creates selection problems for tertiary institutions, which may have to fall back on their own testing mechanisms in that case, and leaves one wondering what the point is in having terminating school qualifications at all.

An interesting development has been the ‘best of both worlds’ approach through the incorporation of internal assessments into students’ final scores to produce a ‘hybrid’ mark. It is critically important that schools’ assessments (and even assessments by teachers in the same school) are comparable – an absolute necessity for the maintenance of the ‘level playing field’. This requires the external moderation of school-generated assessments. Moderation must have teeth: moderating authorities have to be empowered to manipulate schools’ internal assessments up or down to make them comparable. It all adds significantly to costs, and international experience suggests that the universities tend to be wary of the inclusion of internal assessments in final marks. But the idea is a good one in principle as it enables more holistic assessment, and we need to keep research tabs on this one to see how it can best be made to work.

The University Entrance (UE) qualification has a long history in NZ. The UE examination was first conducted in 1888. From 1968, UE was gained mostly through accreditation by the school at the end of Form 6 (Year 12), although there was an examination option for those who were not accredited. The UE examination system was abolished in 1986 and replaced by an upgraded Sixth Form Certificate (SFC), which was already in existence as an adjunct internally-assessed sixth form qualification. It seemed the perfect opportunity to end the anomaly of university entrance from the penultimate year of high school by insisting on students completing Form 7 (Year 13) and sitting the external University Bursaries examinations – which most were already doing anyway – but Form 6 was enigmatically retained as the ‘UE year’. The SFC was never a satisfactory UE ticket, but this soon became a moot point with the imminent introduction of the NCEA system and the concomitant phasing out of the old School Certificate, SFC and University Bursaries, at which stage UE finally moved to the end of schooling.

For a while back in the 1990s, the future of external exams in NZ looked rather shaky. The old qualifications were to be replaced with Unit Standards – piecemeal awards based on fragments of curricula. Unit Standards are internally assessed, and students either pass or fail them. Unit Standards have their roots in vocational training and assessment – you can either do a specified job to set criteria or you can’t; applying this mindset to subjects constituting a broad, general academic education is of dubious validity. The spectre of a secondary school qualifications system dominated by internally assessed bits and pieces was too much for some, and a coalition of ‘rebel schools’ banded together and set up a Cambridge International Examinations syndicate.

The Unit Standard as the proposed mainstay of the mooted NZ secondary school qualification regime came in for so much flak from so many quarters that an alternative to it – the Achievement Standard – was hurriedly put in place even before the new NCEA had fully  kicked in for those who wanted a more conventional summative assessment tool to assess the traditional academic subjects. Some Achievement Standards are internally assessed (although, unlike Unit Standards, they allow for graded passes), but others are assessed through external exams.

For a decade, students have been able to attain UE status through both Achievement and Unit Standards in given domains; mixtures have been commonplace. But there is now another change in the wind: as from 2014, students will have to pass prescribed lists of Achievement Standards to qualify for entry to given university programmes. As well as being a sensible move with regard to secondary/tertiary alignment, it’s also an interesting example of a ‘hybrid’ system given a mixture of internally and externally-assessed Standards. The success thereof will depend largely on how ‘tight’ the quality controls for the internally-assessed Standards are. It’s an evolving situation (as it has been since Day 1 of the NCEA) and it will be fun to see how this reform pans out.

Barend Vlaardingerbroek BSc, BA, BEdSt, MAppSc, PhD is Associate Professor of Education at the American University of Beirut. He has published papers on examination systems in academic journals and edited a volume on them (‘Secondary School External Examination Systems’, Cambria Press NY). Feedback welcome at

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