High failure rates on re-attempts of new NCEA tests

John Gerritsen for RNZ

Most students who failed crucial new NCEA tests on their first attempt last year failed again on their second attempt.

Figures provided to RNZ by the Qualfications Authority also show most students from schools with high levels of socioeconomic disadvantage failed the online tests in reading, writing and maths last year.

Principals have told RNZ they expect schools will be more discerning about ensuring students sit the tests only when they are ready to pass them.

But some warn the tests are unfair for students from disadvantaged backgrounds and the pass rates indicate multiple opportunities to resit won't help.

From this year students must pass the tests, or for the next two years specific achievement and unit standards, before they can receive an NCEA qualification.

High failure rates in early pilots alarmed some teachers and last year the tests were offered 'for real' in June and again in October and November.

Students who passed last year achieved the new literacy and numeracy requirements. Most of those who attempted the tests were in Year 10.

The cumulative pass rate across the two sets of tests were 69 percent in reading, 64 percent in writing and 61 percent in numeracy.

But for the third of schools with the highest socioeconomic barriers to achievement the average pass rates were 44 percent in reading, 40 percent in writing and 35 percent in maths.

The figures also showed that the 15,500 students who failed a test in the June session had pass rates on their second attempt in October/November of 43 percent in reading, 46 percent for writing and 38 percent for maths.

Students from the third of schools with the most barriers to achievement had second-attempt pass rates of just 26 percent in reading, 24 percent in numeracy and 41 percent in writing.

Porirua College principal Ragne Maxwell said some of her school's students sat the tests last year and many failed even though their teachers judged they were ready.

"The students we put through, they were at the level of curriculum that they're supposed to be able to pass the test at. Most of them nevertheless failed the test," she said.

Maxwell said the high failure rate for second attempts was not surprising.

"We're told these co-requisites will not be a barrier to achievement because people can keep sitting them and we have been saying again and again if you have a method of assessment that does not work for people, where the method of assessment becomes a barrier in and of itself, repeating that experience is not going to change the nature of the barrier.

"So for students for whom an online test is not a valid way to assess genuine literacy skills that they have because the online test is a problem, doing it more often won't make a difference to that," she said.

Maxwell said the government needed to retain the alternative pathway for achieving the literacy and numeracy requirements.

Sir Edmund Hillary Collegiate principal Kiri Turketo said her school had not yet offered the online tests and was likely use both the tests and the alternative achievement and unit standards that could be used to meet the literacy and numeracy requirement this year and next.

"We're going to use a mix of both and see how we go," she said.

"We're not too sure what's going to work for our students and I suspect given how the majority of students feel about sitting physical exams I'm not too sure how our students will go. They could go great or they could take a nose-dive."

Turketo said the school was unlikely to offer the tests to students in Year 10, which was the largest group attempting last year's tests.

"There is no need to actually test our kids at a younger stage and I think the reason why some schools may be doing it is to just get it over and done with whereas I'm like 'assess when ready'. Why subject our kids to the torture of exams early so by the time they get to Year 11 and 12 they've already got this anxiety about having to sit more tests and more examinations," she said.

She was also hesitant about using the online tests because of equity issues.

"We still have issues around having the right infrastructure for our students to be able to sit these online."

Secondary Principals Association president Vaughan Couillault said the previous years' pass rates were due in part to schools experimenting with the tests.

He said some schools allowed students to sit the tests only if teachers thought they were ready, while others allowed most or all of their Year 10 cohort to have a go.

Couillault said the low pass rates for second-attempts could be due to a lack of follow-up learning.

"If you're going to have a second crack at something, more teaching and learning needs to have occurred," he said.

"So it would indicate on the surface of it that if they've had another crack at it, either missing out the first time has been incredibly demotivating and hasn't helped them in their learning journey or that teaching and learning hasn't occurred or a combination of [those] two things."

He said students were accustomed to having several attempts at NCEA achievement standards and that could have contributed to relatively low pass rates in the online tests.

However, he thought this year would be different because while students could attempt the tests repeatedly, meeting the new literacy and numeracy standard was essential.

"This is now a high-stakes situation," he said.

"With the literacy, numeracy assessment it's binary, you either get it or you don't. And if you don't get it you don't get the qualification which can be really demotivating."

Couillault said he expected schools would take a different approach to the tests this year.

He said his own school would be more discerning about when it allowed students to sit the tests.

"You don't want someone to step into an assessment situation if you know that they're not ready for it."