Why Don’t Half of Kids with NCEA Level 1 Meet Literacy and Numeracy Benchmarks?


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I’m not going to answer the question. But you might want to read below if you have your own ideas.

I want to talk about a presentation that did the rounds today. If you click this link below, you’ll be able to download the slides. It’s on literacy and numeracy levels in relation to NCEA year levels.

If you look past the poor design, some interesting pieces of data pop out. Here is how I have interpreted these… in bullet form because I know you won’t read the presentation:

  • Proportions of students achieving at or above the national standards haven’t really moved at all between the years 2011 to 2014
  • Percentages of students at or above the national standards  drop as they go through the year levels.
  • Teachers at years 7-11 are teaching content and content vocabulary, but minimising literacy challenges for students. The report says they’re doing this with the best interests of the students in mind.
  • The numbers of 18 year-olds with NCEA level 2 or equivalent has dramatically increased from 2011 to now, including for Maori and Pasifika.

And here’s some connections to data from the TEC’s Literacy and Numeracy for Adults Assessment Tool (LNAAT). This is where it gets really interesting.

Just in case you are wondering, all tertiary education providers – that is, post high school –  delivering foundation level learning are required to use the LNAAT as a condition of funding.

The benchmark here was Level 3 from the ALL Survey which they have lined up with Step 4 for Literacy and Step 5 for Numeracy.

  • Just over half (51%) of year 11 students with NCEA level 1 reading are below the benchmark for reading. This means half of students with NCEA level 1 are at step 3 or below in the LNAAT.
  • Just under half (47%) of year 11 students with NCEA level 1 numeracy are below the benchmark. This means that these students are at step 4 or below in the LNAAT.

Just an example: If your kid read at step 3, but not at step 4, this means they have a basic vocabulary of everyday words. What they probably can’t read and understand is any academic language, like the kinds of “teacher words” used to describe the tasks they have to do at school. They also probably can’t understand any of the technical or specialised words they need to make sense of the subject matter that they’re learning.

What they probably can’t read and understand is any academic language, like the kinds of “teacher words” used to describe the tasks they have to do at school. These words kind of slot in at step 4 and 5. They also probably can’t understand any of the technical or specialised words they need to make sense of the subject matter that they’re learning.

They also probably can’t understand any of the technical or specialised words they need to make sense of the subject matter that they’re learning. These words start at step 5 but they sit mainly at step 6. Here we’re talking about the specialised language of a trade, or of any content area really.

Remember, these students in the stats above already have NCEA Level 1 signed off. This means that they have already achieved the required number of credits for literacy and numeracy. That means they passed at least 20 credits dedicated to literacy and numeracy.

Just so we’re clear: teachers already signed off that these students met the requirement for literacy and numeracy for NCEA level 1.

But the test data indicates that they are below the level literacy and numeracy levels of actual literacy and numeracy standards.

Here’s the data for year 12 according to the presentation.

  • 42% of year 12 students with NCEA L2 reading are below the benchmark. That is they are at step 3 or below on the LNAAT.
  • 41% of year 12 students with NCEA L2 numeracy are below the benchmark. In other words, at step 4 or below on the LNAAT.

Highlighted in red in the presentation is the following (I’ve tidied up the grammar):

  • The data suggests that students achieving [NCEA] requirements only through unit standards have lower performance on the LNAAT.
  • Year 12 students who met requirements through unit standards [only] were less
    likely to achieve NCEA Level 2.

Here’s a question to consider:

  • If this data is correct, does it mean that high-school teachers, already pushed for time and working under less than ideal conditions, need to think about better ways of integrating or embedding literacy and numeracy into their content teaching? 

If this is correct they need to rethink their fundamental approaches to teaching their content. And here’s another question, although more of a prediction:

  • The Ministry of Education – through the TEC – already owns a well-researched and now widely implemented tool for measuring literacy and numeracy gains. They even have a “Youth” version. If you were working in Government, wouldn’t it make economic sense to you to apply this tool to the years 11 – 13 to assess literacy and numeracy gains? I’d start with the vocational areas first.

I’m not advocating for it. And I’m not judging. Well, maybe a little. Anyway, finally a suggestion:

  • If you were a school teacher, or principal faced with massive new compliance requirements on the horizon related to literacy and numeracy gains, wouldn’t it make sense to look at a home-grown and already existing model for embedding literacy and numeracy into trades and other content areas?

12 thoughts on “Why Don’t Half of Kids with NCEA Level 1 Meet Literacy and Numeracy Benchmarks?

  1. Great points – interesting to see what happens regarding our sector beginning to overlap with the school sector. Watch this space I guess.

    I’m actually amazed at how this keeps happening every ten years or so. I’m now old enough to be entering the end of the second cycle of this, and it’s amazing how the system refuses to learn from its’ own mistakes.

    You get what you measure – along with the unintended consequences. The Ministry of Education decided to incentivise the completion of Units and ultimately the NCEA. This was based, in part, on the evidence that people with NCEA level 2 are economically more robust. Somehow, this positive property got conflated with having NCEA level two rather than high-skilled youths naturally passing the qual. In other words, they thought, wrongly, that gaining a qualification was the same as genuine learning gains. So they got what they paid for. More people passing, but those who pass have less skills. They have essentially eroded the value of NCEA level one and two!

  2. I agree, the push is for gaining qualifications with out the skills.

    We are finding more school leavers getting referrals for Training For Work – These 18 year olds, have left school, no job and have gained NCEA level two through Trades Academy. We are also finding more Youth signing up for our Youth Guarantee programmes who already have NCEA L2. The school looks good because they are achieving their goal of more students gaining NCEA L2. The students are the losers here, they achieve NCEA L2 and are told this will give them the qualifications to gain employment but they lack the skills to gain employment

    • Hi Miriam. Thanks for that. In your experience with these students, do they more or less match the profile described? i.e. that around half of them with NCEA wouldn’t score 4+ for reading or 5+ for numeracy?

  3. Hi Graeme. I m going to speak my mind here, but I’ll leave it to you to moderate as you see fit.
    I saw that research report about a month ago, and have also been working with students amd tutors of YG and career preparation programmes lately. I am coming across students holding NCEA Level 3 with LNAAT results at step 3. They can read, but not necessarily comprehend complex texts, and their application of numeracy is sketchy – often they struggle to unpack the questions and work out what has to be done. With prompting, they can often solve the problem, eventually.
    My assertion is that teachers are ‘doing whatever it takes’ to have students pass those L1 LN unit standards, so that students pass NCEA L1, and then students do subjects at L2&3 that dont have high LN demands. But when they get to polytech or wananga or work and have to read and do numeracy to succeed, they’re stumped.
    I think all schooling has to take on an embedded approach, but also for teachers to have the integrity to ensure students are prepared for assessments, and that assessments are valid.

  4. I see that in the States, the earnings for someone with a degree has plummeted. Some commentary is attributing this to the bums on seats approach that resulted in more students being accepted and pushed through programmes. The graduates gain the same qualifications as the learners in the previous decade, but simply are not worth as much in the open market because they demonstrably do not have the same skills. The Government saw that people with qualifications earn more and concluded that higher qualifications are worth more. Cause and effect completely wrong. Exactly the same here with NCEA level 2.

    I’m not sure if you guys have seen the Canadian and Austratian PIAAC results but they are good indicators of our results. Both BELOW average – and yet they spend more than almost all the others. We spend in the top ten percent and yet will score below average. What the heck is going on????

      • We all become plumbers and builders? Right now all my builder buddies are becoming rich. Maybe leather workers…

      • There’s certainly something in making stuff with your hands. I might have to write about this at some stage.

        I think it’s more what we’re wired up for. As opposed to what we currently think of as ‘knowledge work’.

        My current thinking on this is that all making is knowledge work.

        But not all knowledge work is making.

        The difference is possibly what we used to call ‘craft’. And I mean things that require a substantial apprenticeship period and developing mastery over time.

        There are plenty of modern things that involve craft. Computer programming for example.

        But anything that involves bureaucracy, compliance, and busywork, seem the antithesis of craft to me.

        Bureaucracies, government or otherwise, don’t usually “make” anything. Apart from perhaps more bureaucracy and compliance.

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