NCEA – what is it, does it work & where is it going?

The National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) is now 15 years old and hasn’t been without its controversy. The assessment system NCEA came under a lot of criticism in the early years as people adjusted to it, though many teachers now approve of it. A 2015 survey found that 69 per cent of teachers and 95 per cent of principals supported it. Now, it is under review. The review has been directed by new Education Minister Chris Hipkins and has been welcomed by many.

But those of us who have never studied under it or had children go through it are often still confused about what NCEA really is and how it works.

So, what is NCEA? It is the official secondary school qualification in New Zealand. It is awarded at three levels in the last three years of secondary education. For those of us educated before that, essentially NCEA Level 1 replaced School Certificate, Level 2 replaced Sixth Form Certificate and Level 3 replaced Bursary.

The whole idea of NCEA was that more students could come out of school with some sort of qualification. To pass each level, students must gain a certain number of credits at that level or above. Credits are awarded through students passing unit standards or achievement standards. Each subject is made up of multiple standards, for example, mathematics at Level 1 is made up of 13 achievement standards, including separate standards for algebra, geometry, trigonometry, statistics and probability.

Like many assessment systems, NCEA is administered both internally and externally throughout the school year, usually by exams held at the end of the year. A certain amount of credits are required to pass a subject, a year level, and then university entrance requirements.

NCEA has come under criticism for teaching to a matrix and using a flawed group marking system. Some students and teachers say it’s easy to manipulate the system and know what the markers are looking for as to opposed to thinking about how to best answer the question.

But supporters of NCEA says it has improved the lives of our young people. It has stopped many students coming out of high school with a “fail rate” and it gives everyone a chance to develop skills.

Former Burnside High School student, Alex Tapper, says NCEA has some big issues. She says it’s good for some students, for example, those who may have an ongoing illness or have a large extra-curricular workload “because they can tailor their internal assessments around outside commitments”. Also, Alex says it works for students who aren’t academically inclined.

“But for academically-inclined students, NCEA does not inspire students to push themselves for the highest grade possible, because the highest grade is simply a threshold. There is no way to judge yourself compared to your peers if you both end up on the same threshold.”

The shake-up and review of NCEA will look at whether all students should attempt the Level 1 qualification and whether teenagers are being over-assessed. It comes off the back of the new government also scrapping National Standards, the assessment system used in primary and intermediate schools.

Alex doesn’t think students are over-assessed under NCEA. “There is argument that schools should teach skills such as resiliency and adaptability, but I believe assessments aid in this, not work against learning these skills. Students must learn how to manage their time and manage studying for things they don’t like versus what they do like, which is true of university and any career path.”

Alex would like to see marking thresholds thrown out and grade percentages brought back in. She said this will encourage skills like critical thinking as students will form their own arguments as opposed to presenting arguments a matrix wants them to make. “Sadly the [government] review will not look into the core features of NCEA, which includes the marking system.”

Rangi Ruru Associate Principal Juliet Collins says she’d like the government to review the relevancy of three years of qualifications. “This is arduous for students and encourages a culture of anxiety around assessment.” Chris Hipkins says this is something they will be looking at.

Juliet Collins says the core strength of NCEA is the flexibility of design that allows schools, teachers and students to construct a programme of learning that suits the individual. “Another strength is that it is a standards-based assessment system and therefore describes what students can do and achieve.”

Juliet does think over-assessment is an issue. Her criticism of the NCEA system is that it becomes focussed on assessment rather than learning. “Courses tend to be broken up into assessments and students can then find it difficult to value any learning that is not assessed… fostering a love of learning is difficult when assessments are the driver for many students.”

So, what could the future look like? Education Minister Chris Hipkins says over-assessment of students and teacher workload will be addressed in this year’s review but NCEA will not be scrapped altogether.

Hipkins told Style, New Zealand has a world-class education system “but there’s always room for improvement”.

“Part of the issue is that it has become about credit accumulation rather than skill accumulation without enough focus on what that all adds up to.”

He says many students are doing more credits than they need to and also not gaining the correct skill set for the areas they’re going into.

He agrees with Juliet Collins that over-assessment is a big issue and the system focusses on constantly measuring rather than teaching and learning. “I want to tip the focus back to teaching and learning.”

He says this review will result in an evolution of the current system where they will build on the strength of NCEA and refine it.

Alex Tapper, however, does not believe New Zealand’s education system is world class. “In fact, many of the top universities around the world, including Oxford and Cambridge, do not recognise it as a rigorous enough education system for the type of students they seek at their institution.”

Alex is currently teaching in Thailand and plans to teach all over the world learning about education systems and their pathways for students. “From this I hope to move into academia in New Zealand and look at policy changes that could improve the education system.”

Juliet Collins says she gets tired of hearing NCEA criticised roundly and that it has fantastic qualities. “It is important to remind ourselves that the qualifications that NCEA replaced were punitive, unfair and anachronistic.”

She believes the future of education in New Zealand is very bright. “However, education, that is teaching and learning – truly drawing out the best from students, should not be confused with what National Standards did which was to provide a funnel to inhibit learning for the sake of assessment. I am truly glad to see National Standards gone as I believed they discouraged learning. I would like to see a wide-ranging review that really listens to the issues around assessment versus learning.”

So, NCEA is here to stay but it’s some of these concerns by teachers and students alike that may see crucial changes made to it.