PPTA AGAINST NORTH & SOUTH

Case Number: 2213

Council Meeting: OCTOBER 2011

Verdict: Upheld in Part

Publication: North & South

Ruling Categories: Balance, Lack Of
Accuracy
Unfair Coverage

The Post Primary Teachers’ Association (PPTA) has complained that an article in North & South magazine about NCEA was not accurate, fair or balanced. The complaint is upheld on fairness and balance.

Background
NCEA is the National Certificate of Education Achievement, administered by the New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA).
The article ‘Blowing the whistle on NCEA’, published in July 2011, accuses the New Zealand Qualifications Authority of ‘fudging the figures’ to make it appear that its moderators and teachers are moving towards closer agreement on the internal assessment of students’ work.
The standfirst said ‘Scaling, cheating, fudging figures, manipulating marks – and that’s just the administrators. Is NCEA corrupting everyone it touches?’
The magazine quoted an anonymous source, ‘Teacher Pete’, who attended a workshop run by an NZQA moderator where participants heard that the Education Minister was concerned at the level of disagreement between moderator and teacher-assessment of internally assessed work. Teacher Pete claimed the moderator told workshop participants that the NZQA response was to ‘fudge the figures for the minister’ and ignore some of the disagreements and repeated errors.
This allegation is the basis of the article. North & South also quoted other critics of NCEA, including a former accounting teacher and NCEA marker, who analyses and markets NCEA data. He said the NZQA was simply putting ‘spin’ on the internal assessments. More schools were agreeing with the moderators’ marking because teachers were now more careful about what and when they submit the work.
It also quoted the principal of Auckland Grammar School, whose school has opted out of NCEA in favour of the Cambridge International Examinations (CIE). His view was that NCEA was not transparent, valid or fair and that incorrect internal assessments had been going on for years.

Complaint
PPTA president Robin Duff complained that there was no attempt at balance or fairness in the article. The magazine was wrong to rely on one anonymous source to substantiate the main claim that a moderator had encouraged teachers to ‘fudge the figures for the minister’.
He said the article did not include teachers speaking positively about the level of agreement between grades awarded by teachers in internal assessment and grades awarded by NZQA moderators.
Nor did the article include responses from NZQA, the Ministry of Education or the PPTA.
To say that NCEA was made up of 80 percent internal assessment was completely misleading. “The standards for which results are reported nationally by schools are about one-third external achievement standards, one-third internal achievement standards and one-third unit standards.”
Mr Duff said there was no evidence for the allegation that teachers were more careful what and when they submitted work, or that work was re-marked. Schools were required to select samples of student work randomly and that selection had to be done by someone other than the teacher or head of that subject.
In a further response, he added that it was unreasonable that someone known for her critical view of NCEA should write the article, and the magazine should have made this clear to readers.

The Magazine’s Response
In correspondence to Mr Duff, North & South editor Virginia Larson says she saw no compelling reason for the writer of the article to seek comment from the teachers’ union.
She published a letter from Mr Duff in the letters to editor column in the following issue, among other letters that were both critical and supportive of the article.
In her response to the Press Council, Ms Larson said she considered the article to be balanced, fair and accurate. She said there was an exception to the Press Council’s Principle 1 for long-running issues in the national interest, where every side could not reasonably be covered on every occasion. This was such an issue.
This didn’t mean that North & South had to occasionally publish articles depicting NCEA in a positive light, but to publish robust, well-researched coverage of the ongoing debate.
Ms Larson said the article had relied on the NZQA annual report and its own statistics and there was no obligation on the magazine to seek comment about NCEA from NZQA. The authority was responsible for NCEA and therefore bound to support it. She said the information from the NZQA annual report included in the article adequately covered the NZQA view.
On the question of whether NCEA was now 80 percent internal assessment, Ms Larson said the writer had relied on previous newspaper articles citing concern by Education Minister Anne Tolley. The writer had also drawn on principals’ concerns about the ‘creep’ towards internals. The principal of Auckland Grammar School had expressed the view that internal assessment would now be up to 80 percent.
As for students’ work being marked and re-marked, Ms Larson says this had been the feedback received from teachers.

Discussion
The standfirst sets the tone for a hard-hitting article: ‘Scaling, cheating, fudging figures, manipulating marks – and that’s just the administrators. Is NCEA corrupting everyone it touches?’
This is a one-sided critique of NCEA and NZQA and, by implication, some teachers. It is unconvincing for the magazine to argue that there was no requirement for it to seek balancing comment from NZQA when specific allegations of manipulating marks and figures were being made about the organisation. Answers to these charges weren’t going to be found in the NZQA annual report.
The article made specific claims about the actions of teachers marking and re-marking in order to get better results. The magazine argues that teachers will confirm this privately, but not publicly for fear of harming their careers. The allegations against teachers should have been put to the PPTA as their representative body.

The article states as a fact that NCEA is made up increasingly of internal assessment, of up to 80 percent. It would have been helpful to have some back-up to this statement in the form of the Education Minister’s reported concerns or the percentage figure from the Auckland Grammar School principal.

Conclusion
Publications are entitled to take a forthright stance and advocate a position on any issue. But this article contained specific and potentially damaging allegations about NCEA and NZQA and teachers that in fairness, for balance and, not least, for the sake of its readers should have contained balancing views. The views of the PPTA should have been sought. The Press Council is not in a position to say the article is inaccurate. The complaint is upheld in terms of Principle 1 concerning fairness and balance.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson, Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, John Roughan, Lynn Scott and Stephen Stewart.

Keith Lees and Clive Lind took no part in the consideration of this complaint.