Not too excellent please

Dr Michael Johnston
Insights Newsletter
13 July, 2023

NZQA would like help deciding what excellence means.

The trouble is, too many students have been achieving it.

So, NZQA has published a discussion document. Presumably, they want people to discuss what excellence means and let them know.

Before NCEA was implemented 20 years ago, we didn’t have to worry about what excellence meant. Grades were allocated to fit pre-determined distributions. A few percent would get grades of A, a few percent more, grades of B, and so on. It was called ‘norm-based’ assessment.

A lot of people thought norm-based assessment was unfair. It rationed the best grades so that only the best students could attain them, they said. NCEA was designed to fix that.

NCEA is a ‘standards-based’ system. That means students are judged only on their own performance, rather than relative to the performance of others.

That was the idea, anyway.

Some starry-eyed educators looked forward to a day when everyone would get Excellence. Under a standards-based system, that is possible, in theory.

Twenty years on, it’s becoming true – in practice. In some assessments, Excellence is now the most frequent grade. As it turns out, though, that’s not so excellent after all.

In its discussion document NZQA puts the problem like this: “Excellence has now become the goal for many students … While this is very acceptable as a goal, many students expect and do receive it.” This, they say, “lowers the standing of Excellence, as it no longer discriminates good from superior performance.”

NZQA has quite the dilemma on its hands.

Under our standards-based system, if students show excellence (whatever it may mean), they should get a grade of Excellence. On the other hand, if too many students get Excellence, then it isn’t special anymore.

So, we need to define excellence in a way that allows all excellent students to attain it. But we also need to define it so that not too many are excellent.

What NZQA doesn’t seem to have considered is that, however we define excellence, it will not only be a goal for students. It will be a goal for their teachers too.

Teachers like their students to be excellent. That means, when it comes to marking, teachers will always be inclined to give them Excellence.

So, whatever NZQA decides excellence is, in a few years we will be having this discussion again.

Maybe they should just go back to using a norm.

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