An analysis of National Certificate of Educational Achievement chemistry courses in terms of curriculum, pedagogy and assessment: With comparison to the International Baccalaureate Diploma
New Zealand has seen significant change in curriculum and qualification frameworks in recent years. The implementation of the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) from 2002 and a revised national curriculum in 2007 have underpinned the forces of change. However, preceding its implementation, the NCEA qualification sparked controversy both in the education literature and general media. This controversy around the NCEA continues. Classroom-based evidence on the impact of the NCEA on teaching and learning has a significant role in informing policy, and this work aimed to make such a contribution. As a number of secondary schools in this country offer alternative senior school qualifications, this invited the opportunity to compare the phenomenon of teaching chemistry to Years 12 and 13 students under two structurally different qualification frameworks. The overarching research question investigated in this study was: In the context of NCEA and International Baccalaureate Diploma (IBD) chemistry courses in New Zealand secondary schools, how do teachers manage the tension between learning, teaching, and assessment? Teachers’ views and practices were explored through inquiry questions relating to the following: Teaching the content and procedural knowledge of chemistry (referring to curriculum and pedagogy); and their approaches to assessment. Qualitative research was undertaken from a comparative case study within an interpretive paradigm. Two case schools offered both NCEA and IB Diploma qualifications, and one case school NCEA only. A total of ten participants from the three case schools were interviewed, and short sequences of lessons taught by the participant teachers were also observed. Following the coding of the interview data, emergent themes provided direction for the simple statistical analysis of national NCEA results data. Manageability of courses and their assessment, feeling accountable for high grade outcomes, and the wish for subject specific professional development were areas that teachers of both NCEA and IBDP noted as factors that concerned them. The influence of high-stakes assessment was seen in the teaching methods used in the case schools towards preparing students to attain these qualifications. It was evident from the interviews that participants had much more to say about their teaching of NCEA than they did for the IB Diploma qualification. The imbalance in the collected data, with more being related to the NCEA, was interpreted as arising from issues related to the achievement standard structure of this qualification. The impact of the NCEA on teaching and assessment of chemistry in Years 12 and 13 was found to be significant. NCEA achievement standards were seen to be the default curriculum (rather than the New Zealand Curriculum), and drove course designs in the three case schools. Extrinsic motivation from NCEA credits and grades were considered by the teachers to be key factors in students’ approaches to learning. Courses were designed to maximise grades, and teachers identified the time spent on rehearsal leading up to internal assessment as a concern. When mapped to the New Zealand Curriculum, it was evident that curricular holes in NCEA courses existed; in particular with regard to nature of science and investigation learning objectives. In the case schools, coherence of chemistry as a discipline was compromised in NCEA courses, with implications for students understanding. The performance of schools is evidently being judged, by both government and the media through the publication of league tables of NCEA grade data. This seems to be driving chemistry learning in directions that are counter to international directions in curriculum reform. Based on the findings of this study, several recommendations are made. Attention should be paid to supporting (and resourcing) full implementation of the New Zealand Curriculum, with a focus on subject specific professional development for teachers. The relationship between the New Zealand Curriculum and the NCEA needs addressing; the achievement structure of the NCEA as it currently exists, is coming at a high cost in terms of compromising pedagogy and subject connectedness. Issues of the reliability and validity of NCEA assessment also exist, suggesting that review of current implementation and assessment policy, including that relating to the conduct of national examinations, need review.