Shifting balances: The impact of Level 1 NCEA on the teaching of Mathematics and Science Publications
This small-scale project investigated changes in teaching and learning in 18 case study schools, nine in mathematics and nine in science, as the NCEA implementation beds in at Year 11.
Author(s): Rosemary Hipkins, Alex Neill, New Zealand Council for Educational Research. Report prepared for the Ministry of Education.
Date Published: December 2003
Setting the scene
This research was carried out in the year following the first year of implementation of the NCEA at level 1. The curriculum areas of mathematics and science were chosen in the context of early indications that teachers of these subjects generally held more reservations about the NCEA than did teachers in other subject areas. The research sought to establish whether positive changes in mathematics and science teaching related to the NCEA implementation could be identified and documented, notwithstanding the concerns being expressed by a number of teachers of these subject areas.
Introduction to the project
This small-scale project investigated changes in teaching and learning in 18 case study schools, nine in mathematics and nine in science, as the NCEA implementation beds in at Year 11. Schools were representative of a range of school types — single sex and co-educational, high decile and low, city, town and rural, large and small. The teachers were mostly highly experienced, and were nominated for participation because they were seen to be effectively implementing the NCEA in their schools. Some were more supportive of the NCEA than others. (The recently completed NZCER National Survey found that mathematics and science teachers are somewhat less likely to see the NCEA making changes to learning than teachers of other curriculum areas.) All the study teachers were determined to make the NCEA work for their students.
Teachers in each school completed a self-reflection sheet designed to capture changes in their practice — whether positive or negative. Each teacher's response patterns identified their priorities and pre/post-NCEA practices for 19 identified aspects of "best practice" that were adapted from the findings of the Australian Science in Schools (SIS) project. Open-ended interview questions were used to describe aspects of the implementation context in each school, and to probe teachers' beliefs about student learning and assessment for qualifications in the NCEA regime.
This research provides an in-depth analysis of the dynamics of change in the study teachers' mathematics and science classrooms in response to the NCEA implementation. We have found a series of inter-related changes. While some of these seem to have readjusted existing balances in classroom practices, with little real change overall, others have intersected with different types of professional development initiatives underway in schools and positive changes have occurred.
The research questions
- As a result of the introduction of the internally assessed achievement standards, are there identifiable changes in the content, structure, and balance within programmes for Maths and Sciences?
- Are there identifiable changes in teaching and learning styles used within Maths and Science programmes that support the development of practical skills, or that allow teachers to address students' attitudes and values relevant to the subject area?
- What case study/best practice lessons can be drawn from 2002/2003 practice in Maths and Science programmes for NCEA level 1?
The content and structure of mathematics and science programmes
All schools have modified the curriculum they offer in mathematics or science, and more such decisions are pending. The main reason for reshaping curriculum content is to reduce time pressures teachers perceive to have been exacerbated by the NCEA, particularly as they accommodate new internal assessment practices, and prepare their students for external examinations in an as yet unfamiliar format. For both mathematics and science, a number of schools have dropped, or are considering dropping, at least one internally assessed standard. Some schools have also selectively dropped externally assessed standards in both curriculum areas. Since there is no single pattern to these changes, the proportion of internally and externally assessed credits that students can gain in each subject varies between subjects and between-schools.
Internal assessments are typically carried out under strictly supervised conditions, rather than as part of the learning activities of the classroom. This practice has added substantially to teacher workloads.
In most schools, preparation for standards-based assessment is now beginning at Years 9 and 10. Conversion of existing assessments to this format has increased workloads in the short-term but teachers appreciate the chance to experiment in a "low-stakes" context. Some internal achievement standards are being assessed at Year 10 to ease curriculum coverage pressures at Year 11.
Learning programmes are typically organised around the discipline-specific divisions of the various achievement standards, which has led to perceptions that the curriculum is segmented. Some schools are beginning to offer innovative courses that combine science achievement standards in new ways — for example, to create "physical sciences", "biological sciences", or "environmental science" courses.
Classes are likely to be streamed, especially in mathematics, with students of differing ability levels offered courses that combine different combinations of achievement and unit standards. In these schools, students in science and mathematics classes with different types of learning needs may be experiencing the NCEA differently:
- "less able" students are likely to have a higher proportion of their course internally assessed and to be assessed with unit standards rather than achievement standards;
- "more able" students are more likely to be encouraged to try for merit or excellence level awards, especially for externally assessed standards; and
- students in some schools are well supported to try for reassessment but those in other schools get "one shot" at internally assessed achievement standards.
Changing balances in classroom programmes
The patterns of ranking of priorities and practices reported by the study teachers show a mix of changes pre- and post-NCEA implementation at level 1.
Both mathematics and science teachers say they are now spending more time on ensuring that assessment incorporates a range of levels and/or types of thinking. This change is directly linked to assessment requirements for demonstrating merit and excellence for achievement standards and teachers are actively looking for ways to develop this change further. Both mathematics and science teachers also say they are now spending more time teaching for understanding rather than for content coverage, but they are worried about "narrowing" the curriculum.
Mathematics teachers say they are now using fewer open-ended investigative tasks and less higher- order tasks than pre-NCEA. This accords with their assertions that it is not easy to fit rich mathematical tasks into their programmes now. However it may be that the difficulty of fitting such tasks into a mathematics programme has been exacerbated rather than arising as a new issue.
Science teachers say they are now using fewer strategies that help students to clarify their own ideas. Again, it may be that the NCEA implementation has exacerbated an existing tension in competing classroom priorities, rather than arising as a new issue.
The weight of responsibility that teachers feel when their students are assessed for qualifications may mitigate against some changes teachers would otherwise like to make in their classroom practices. For some teachers, this tension is exacerbated by internal assessment for qualifications because an explicit focus on preparation for such assessments is now spread through the year rather than being focused on a one-off end-of-year event. On the positive side, more time and attention are now being given to the practical course components that are internally assessed.
Best practice lessons/opportunities for professional development
In all 18 subject departments there is a strong focus on working collegially to implement the NCEA. Most schools have well-established internal moderation policies and practices. Some teachers have welcomed the strong focus on student learning and achievement, and say they have used this to rethink aspects of their teaching practice.
The achievement standards have made teachers more aware of differences in levels of student achievement for a range of aspects of learning. They are more focused on helping students develop the skills needed to demonstrate learning for merit and excellence, although there are some tensions between this teaching goal and current practice including:
- learning for higher-level achievement may be restricted to more able students, with "average" students expected to concentrate on gaining achievement grades;
- some teachers have responded to the likelihood that unfamiliar contexts will be used for excellence components of examination questions by trying to cover more content;
- formative assessment is often strongly associated with holding trial runs for summative assessment rather than with extending and deepening learning;
- teachers are reluctant to promote the use of self-regulated learning strategies except where these simply monitor students' self-management of their overall progress; and
- some strategies that could help develop students' thinking skills are being used less rather than more. There may have also been a decline in the use of meaningful contexts for learning.
These contradictory changes appear to be related to the imperative that teachers feel to "cover" the curriculum, and the time that preparation for new and unfamiliar types of assessments is taking from the overall learning programme. Both mathematics and science teachers would like to provide more stimulus materials that get students discussing ideas. There are opportunities to align professional discussions with the review of curriculum coverage in the curriculum stocktake. The provision of classroom-ready exemplars could support teachers to more closely match their practice to their priorities — especially if such tasks can be linked to the desire to help students demonstrate merit and excellence in their NCEA assessments.
These teachers favour the use of pre- and post- tests to monitor student learning, as did the mathematics and science teachers who responded to the national survey associated with the curriculum stocktake. The provision of exemplars of good formative assessment practice could help teachers to better involve students in the ongoing monitoring of their learning, and inform their next learning steps. Since students are beginning to make unilateral decisions about which assessments for qualifications they will undertake, handing them more such responsibility will be timely and may help with the associated motivation challenges. It could also help with the time pressures teachers feel when internal assessments are carried out under one-off examination conditions. However, students need good advice and support to choose appropriate pathways.
There is a strong focus on the development of literacy skills in both curriculum areas. While the secondary schools literacy initiative has contributed to this in at least some of the case study schools, teachers' awareness of literacy challenges appears to have been raised by the types of examination questions now being used in external standards-based assessments.
Policy and further research implications
This research can be used to inform the Ministry's ongoing work in a number of ways. These include:
- potential to monitor ongoing NCEA-related changes if the research is repeated in several years' time, and to use the teacher self-reflection instrument developed in this research for a larger-scale survey of teachers in these or other subjects;
- using the insights into the nature and range of interacting factors that impact on teachers' classroom practices when their students face high-stakes assessment for qualifications;
- informing the focus of any ongoing professional development initiatives that explicitly support the NCEA implementation, including the development of strategies that encourage teachers to revise their expectations of students perceived to be low- or under- achievers;
- auditing the work being carried out in other professional development to identify opportunities to create synergies that will enhance the likelihood of changes in classroom practice taking place;
- informing principals about such opportunities so that they can also make matches to any school-wide professional development that may be underway or planned;
- informing the revision of the suites of achievement standards already available for level 1 mathematics and science, and providing a basis for the discussion about the possible creation of new achievement standards; and
- aligning these findings with ongoing curriculum stocktake work, to encourage professional dialogue about the range of possible purposes for learning mathematics and science, and using these insights to develop new conversations — in addition to achieving success in assessment for qualifications — for teachers to draw on when motivating students to learn.
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