The NZ Computer Society met Ministry of Education representatives last week in the wake of its damning report which claims not one of the 18 NCEA achievement standards for computer science is up to the mark.
The aim of the meeting was to encourage cooperation and the positive development of the technology achievement standards that go towards students’ NCEA qualifications. The NZCS had said, in its report, that none of the standards it looked at were appropriate for assessing a student planning to study for a degree in computer science — nor, indeed, for someone expecting to use computers in their working life.
However, two “sample achievement standards” developed by the Post-Primary Teachers’ Association (PPTA) were nearer the mark, but even these were not satisfactory.
Murray Brown, the ministry’s manager of e-learning, agrees that some of the society’s criticisms are valid.
“We’ve acknowledged that if you’re looking at whether the achievement standards give a valid assessment of competence in computer science or programming then the situation is not satisfactory.”
However, he says, the NZCS expects the standards to be more specific in orientation than they are meant to be, given that they are intended to evaluate more general “problem-solving skills” using ICT as a means to tackle, say, a business or technical issue.
The skills being tested are similar to those that might also be used in other technologies such as mechanical engineering, Brown says.
This is an important element in the NZCS’ criticisms: the misdirection of the achievement standards “might be because computer science is not a ‘technology’ — it is more closely related to mathematics and science than it is to soft materials, food technology and hard materials,” says the society.
But Brown disagrees with this analysis: “The standards… [that are] criticised are fit for the purpose for which they were designed,” he says.
The NZCS criticises some of the achievement standards for requiring too high a level of skill, says Brown. “[But], whereas a Year 11 student may be capable of creating a ‘product’ in food technology or hard materials technology, the same student in a computer science context would be quite incapable of producing a software product — let alone have any knowledge of the software development tools and their effect on his/her technological practice. There is an implicit assumption that all technological endeavours and disciplines operate at the same cognitive level, and this is invalid.”
The NZCS also criticised the NCEA achievement standards for using the wrong kind of assessment, such as “a portfolio of work” rather than the production of one working program.
However, Brown, in turn, says the society didn’t look at some of the more practically oriented ICT standards, such as those for computer animation and “text and information management”. The society might have found these to be better.
Brown also criticises the NZCS for failing to consult the ministry before producing its report, despite the fact that some society members are working with the ministry on a “conceptual framework” which will see the evolution of more focused standards.
However, this exercise, known as the Digital Technology Guidelines, does come in for comment in the NZCS report, which compares it to “painting over flaking paintwork adhering to rotten timber”.
“It is too narrow in scope — and short-sighted in terms of the problems that need to be addressed,” says the society.
Brown says discussions between the ministry and the NZCS could well lead to courses being developed that the society will deem more suitable — but these will be additional courses. Existing courses are not in need of fundamental revision, he says.
Brown also resists any implication that school standards are chiefly to blame for young people’s lack of interest in ICT as a career. Other factors, such as careers advice, are coming into play, he says.