New Zealand Qualifications Authority
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October 2000 ISSUE 35

QA News - Home
Ten years on A new wave
Breaking new ground Technology to tame a paper tiger
Standards bring national recognition for learners Anniversary marks new era for New Zealand Qualification Authority
Attention to quality top achievement Workplace learning comes of age
Increasing demand for quality    

Breaking new ground

Back in 1990, NZQA was charged with bringing together New Zealand's diverse national examinations into one integrated system. In the process, the Qualifications Authority, in partnership with legions of examiners, markers and supervisors, developed one of the most open and accountable examinations systems in the world.







In July 1990, a fledgling NZQA faced a stiff test. It took over the work from four different examination boards, inheriting four different sets of regulations and procedures, four different computing systems, four teams of staff with different cultures and an exam cycle half-way through. The examining authorities disestablished were the Trades Certification Board, the Authority for Advanced Vocational Awards, the Universities Entrance Board and the Department of Education's examination functions.





Michael Steer, manager of Examinations Services, NZQA


"We also had lost a lot of institutional knowledge from staff who had chosen not to join NZQA," recalls Michael Steer, NZQA's manager of Examination Services.

It was a massive job, in a new location, with the examination round a matter of months away. Survival was the order of the day in that first year, seeing the cycle through according to the various policies and regulations already in place for each set of examinations.

"From the second year onwards we could begin to develop an NZQA philosophy and an NZQA way of doing things. We set about establishing Authority policies on issues such as entry procedures, supervision, reading time and compassionate considerations for all the Authority exams, thereby making things more straightforward for students and educational institutions when dealing with one Authority.

"It was such a huge challenge, to deal with all these differences and progressively introduce a culture that would deliver a quality examinations system to New Zealand students. It was difficult but it was satisfying. Certainly it has been one of the most satisfying achievements of my career, no question at all."

Looking back over ten years, Michael Steer cites the bold innovation of the automatic return of scripts to all candidates as his personal highlight. It's a policy that was not without its critics initially but has attracted favourable international attention and contributed enormously to the accountability of the system. The transparency of the New Zealand system is rare among examining authorities with the marking process open to scrutiny by parents, teachers and peers as well as candidates.

"The assessment process should not be conducted behind closed doors," comments Michael Steer. "People should understand the process and have confidence that what's gone on has been done professionally and fairly. It has worked really well. Most candidates receive their answer booklets within a week of getting their results and can check thoroughly for any mistakes."

Nicola Meek, former Assistant Chief Examiner for School Certificate English, agrees.

"The credibility of the system rests with the fact that it is transparent. People can understand how their marks were arrived at. We do our best to make sure all candidates get a fair go."

Commitment to the candidate is a cornerstone of the NZQA examination philosophy, says Michael Steer. The candidate is the primary client who pays the fees and deserves the best possible service. Commitment to the candidate means providing a quality system as cost effectively as possible. It's the source of considerable satisfaction to the Authority that student fees have not increased throughout the 1990s, while at the same time many refinements have been introduced which improve the service to students. These include increased responsiveness to students with special needs, an automated compassionate consideration system enabling students to get their results in January and an overhaul of examination documentation to make it more student-friendly.

"I'd like to think that the service we provide students has greatly improved over the years. I do believe we run examinations which are challenging but fair; the current Bursaries examinations are very demanding."

Michael Steer stresses that the key to the massive examinations process is the successful partnership between the Authority's relatively small number of specialist staff and a contract team of 4 500 examiners, moderators, markers and supervisors located throughout the country. Few people realise the mammoth exercise underway every November when 1 200 markers swing into action, marking around 320 000 scripts over a six week period.

"It's a system that relies on the expertise and diligence of thousands of educational professionals combining their assessment skills with first-class operational support," says Michael Steer.

Special examination conditions for students with special needs include readers, writers, access to computers, extended time, papers in braille and enlarged papers.

Technological advances, such as the emailing of marks from the many hundreds of markers, and the use of an NZQA-designed software programme called SADE to bring entries to the Authority, have greatly increased efficiency by eliminating nearly 4 000 mark sheets and 100 000 entry forms.

The need to continually improve systems is very evident in the examinations industry, says Michael Steer.

"Over the years a commitment to continual improvement has seen many checks and balances introduced. The whole system, from the setting and marking of papers through to the training of contractors and the use of NZQA liaison people in schools and polytechnics, is far more robust than it was in the early nineties when we did have some initial difficulties with new systems and some papers.

"When you consider the scale and complexity of the exercise, however, the number of problems has been astonishingly low. I do believe the quality of the examining, marking and supervising have all improved, but having said that, there's still work to be done."

So what are the new challenges looming? Some interesting ones, suggests Michael Steer.

Fast approaching is the introduction of the National Certificate in Educational Achievement (NCEA) Level 1 in 2002, an entirely new qualification incorporating both internal and external assessment against new national standards called achievement standards.

And before long on the horizon there will be the question of students taking examinations on demand, and on line. It's inevitable that soon students will want to use computer notebooks in exams but to a seasoned examinations official, there are fishhooks there to be dealt with.

In the meantime there's a ban on increasingly ubiquitous cellphones to be enforced. Providing a quality service to students has its limits.

  • NZQA is responsible for:
  • 50 secondary examinations
  • 128 tertiary examinations
  • School Certificate - 63 000 candidates
  • University Entrance, Bursaries and Scholarships - 27 000 candidates
  • Trade Certificate and Advanced Vocational Awards - 9 000 candidates
  • Papers to be marked - 310 000
  • Markers, examiners and moderators - 1 500
  • Supervisors - 3 500
  • Overseas exams centres - usually more than 50.

In total, nearly 850 000 exam and accompanying papers are produced, made up of around 11 million A4 pages. If placed end-to-end, the papers would nearly reach from here to Australia and back.


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Page updated: Thu Dec 12 00:00:00 NZDT 2002