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NCEA Credit Conundrum, by Scott Milne

Let me start this piece on NCEA by saying this. Individual NCEA standards can be very robust. I believe that the Excellence criteria for many of the Standards offer a far greater challenge than the old qualifications of Bursary or School Certificate ever did. Students who excel in the most rigorous standards of NCEA are very well prepared for Tertiary study and the workforce.

But as a system? It’s broken.

The media and this government place a lot of stock in NCEA pass rates: there will be few in New Zealand that have not heard the target “85% of school leavers with NCEA level 2”

Schools focus on pass rates for their targets. We look at students who are not leaving school with NCEA level 2, and try and ask why. We target, introduce new programs, and try to raise the rate at which students achieve.

My school had a 92% NCEA pass rate at Level 2 last year.  Another local school had a pass rate of 100%. What does this tell us about the quality of the respective schools?

Absolutely nothing.

NCEA is a very broad qualification. For example, I teach Mathematics. At NCEA level One, there are 13 Achievement Standards, worth a total of 44 Credits. In addition, there are a number of Unit Standard courses where credits can be attained towards NCEA level 1. As an example, where I teach, one of the mathematics courses we offer at Level 1 contains 10 Credits from these Unit Standards.

success jigsawMost courses offer between 16 and 24 Credits. Clearly, not every course contains the same credits. This makes it almost impossible for a person who is not intimately familiar with the particular subject to tell just how good a student is at the subject. It also makes it very hard sometimes for students changing schools – a student may have done completely different standards, and be missing knowledge that is assumed at the school they have changed to.

Of those credits, 16 are external, and the remainder – the vast majority – are internal. Amongst each of those standards – internal AND external – there are vastly different pass rates.  Students, at least, view these Standards as having different difficulties – and to be fair, it would be hard for that number of Standards to all have the same difficulty.

Multiply that problem by the number of available subjects, add in Industry qualifications that a number of schools do through STAR* and GATEWAY** vocational programs, and you begin to see the scope of the assessment at Secondary Schools.

So what does this all mean? For a start, it is near-on impossible to compare students with “x credits in Mathematics” against each other, unless they have done exactly the same standards.  And even then, is a Merit in Algebra better, worse or the same than a Merit in Geometric Reasoning?

Secondly, it means measuring the number of students who meet requirements for Level 1 at a school (a certain number of credits, and a numeracy and literacy requirement) is also meaningless. And yet, that is the measure that schools are compared. That is the measure which the Government is using for its targets, a measure that many schools are using to judge their performance, and a measure that many schools use in their advertising to gain new enrolments.

Whilst many will argue there will always be a need for some form of certification or qualification, if only for employers and universities to filter prospects, we have to consider how accurate these qualifications are in informing those decisions and ask whether there is a better way. For the purposes of Employers especially, the information is next to useless. Some Universities have gone as far as to specify exactly which standards they expect students who have studied a subject at school to have done.  It is also a serious issue when that data is erroneously used by Ministry to judge whether a school is succeeding or failing.

These and other implications of the NCEA assessment system, will be elaborated on in future posts.  Your thoughts on these issues are, as always, welcome.

~ Scott Milne

About the Author

Scott Milne is the Senior Manager of eLearning at Palmerston North Girls’ High School, and a Mathematics Teacher.  His opinions are entirely his own, and don’t necessarily reflect those of his employer.


STAR -Secondary Tertiary Alignment Resource – A program to give students additional education opportunities, aid in retention, and help them on a path towards work or study.

** GATEWAY – A program designed to give Senior Secondary students a pathway to structured workplace learning.

About Save Our Schools NZ

"One needs to be slow to form convictions, but once formed they must be defended against the heaviest odds." Gandhi


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