NCEA changes in the right direction

Dr Judie Alison, independent researcher

The package of NCEA changes announced by the Minister on Monday 13 May is going to make a good contribution to improving equity for students.

It’s not only the elimination of fees that will do this.  This will, certainly, ensure that students get proper recognition for what they have achieved and are not deprived of that recognition by their families’ inability to stump up with the fees.

But equity improvements will also come from other elements of the detailed change package.  This blog post highlights what I see as some of the most significant improvements.

Focusing on key knowledge and skills, including for Māori-medium education

The shift to fewer and larger standards and a return to about half the standards being externally assessed will mean that all students will access the key knowledge and skills of the subjects they take. Currently, the excess of standards available in many subjects, most of these internally assessed, means that teachers can design courses to maximise credits earned rather than to ensure that all their students access the important knowledge of the subject. This tends to impact most negatively on students in lower decile schools and Maori and Pasifika students, as demonstrated in the New Zealand Initiative report Spoiled by choice: How NCEA hampers education, and what it needs to succeed. With less choice of standards, and standards that cover a broader scope, all students should access the core elements of the curriculum in future.

There are also important improvements for Māori-medium education. New suites of standards for both English and Māori Medium will be created as part of the same process. This constitutes a big improvement on previous processes where Māori Medium have followed along behind the work on English Medium instead of being equal partners.

The announcement also includes a commitment to ensuring the inclusion of Te Ao Māori and Mātauranga Māori in all standards and their supporting resources.  This is an important initiative to promote biculturalism.

Tackling workload issues

There will also be significant reductions in both teacher and student assessment workload, once the new standards have bedded in. The excessive workload attached to the current form of NCEA has been well-documented (e.g. see here, here, and here). Half the credits will be externally assessed, but in most cases only one of the two external standards will be assessed in an exam.  The other external standard will be a different type of assessment, e.g. an investigation, a portfolio, a performance, etc.

The Minister also announced that resubmissions will only be allowed if they would get a student from Not Achieved to Achieved.  Resubmissions are where a student has made one or two small errors that the teacher believes they are perfectly able to correct themselves once alerted to their existence. Students amend their initial work under teacher supervision but with no help, and that is often enough to shift them to an Achieved grade.  Currently teachers can be put under a lot of pressure to allow resubmissions to enable a student to move from Achieved to Merit or from Merit to Excellence, which is a big workload pressure and something of a credibility issue.

Resubmissions are not the same as what are currently called Further Opportunities, which is where there is another assessment event or task that assesses the same standard, giving a student another shot at showing what they can do.  These Further Opportunities will still be allowed for all grades, but actually, given the size of the new internal standards, it is likely that achievement of these will come from a series of learning opportunities from which the teacher will be able to judge the student’s best level of achievement, rather than a specific assessment event that is a further opportunity.  So, for example, in Science there might be a standard that is about scientific investigation, and students would do a number of investigations across the year in different contexts.  The grade would come from an overall judgement of what they had achieved in that area across the year.

Reflecting on the original goals of the review

It’s worth reviewing the key goals of the NCEA Review.  They were to seek improvements in:

  • Wellbeing of students and teachers
  • Inclusion and equity
  • Curriculum coherence
  • Pathways through and beyond school
  • Credibility of the qualification.

In my view, the package announced by the Minister has elements that meet all of these goals.

The review is now beginning to move into the next phase, which is to review all of the achievement standards, in both English and Māori Medium.  Writing groups will begin work in 2020, guided by principles and processes established between now and the end of 2019.  The changed standards will begin to be used from 2021 (Level 1) but with the usual transitional processes to allow teachers time to get on board with the changes.

The changes announced by the Minister don’t go as far as some wanted, e.g. abolishing Level 1 NCEA as recommended by PPTA. However, it seems clear that we will still be taking some good steps in the right direction.  It’s important to remember that these changes will be just another part of the long iterative review and improvement process that the NCEA has gone through ever since the first Cabinet paper announced its introduction in late 1997.  One thing that my extensive experience with the NCEA tells me is that the law of unforeseen consequences will still play its part, and there will continue to be a need to analyse what’s happening in this complex system and make tweaks from time to time.


Judie Alison portrait pic.jpgJudie Alison was in at the very beginnings of the NCEA in 1997, as an Executive member of PPTA between 1994 and 2000.  She worked on the writing of the initial sets of achievement standards in English and Media Studies between 1999 and 2000.  In 2002 she began work as the policy adviser at PPTA National Office responsible for curriculum and assessment, in which role she was a member of all the key advisory bodies on NCEA.  In 2007 she published her PhD Mind the Gap!  Policy Change in Practice.  School qualifications reform in New Zealand, 1980-2002.  This used the policy processes that arrived at the NCEA as a case study of policy change and the gaps that tend to arise between policy-makers and teachers.  Judie retired from PPTA in April 2018, but has since been doing contract work related to the NCEA Review for the Ministry of Education, so she continues to be involved. 

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