NCEA and the Performing Seal of Approval


Stuart Middleton

14 March 2018


Teachers are reported (NZ Herald, 13 March 2018) to be “gobsmacked” by revelations that in NCEA some subjects have higher levels of performance than others. This utterly astonishing information shows that 69% of students in Home and Life Studies pass while in Languages 93% pass. The story gets worse! In Languages 43% achieve “excellence” but only 9% in Home and Life Sciences get “excellence”.

It should not be news at all to teachers that students who study some subjects are better at their school work than students in some other subjects. Teachers know only too well that some students bring into the secondary school a higher level of academic preparation and perhaps aptitude and disposition than others. And the process of moving through the school system sees this reflected in subject choice and perhaps even the advice given to students. While schools would advance the view that the old approach of streaming / tracking students has well and truly gone, it could be that it is as clearly defined now informally in the practices in school as it has ever been.

But other things puzzle me. I thought that some of the issues teachers had with NCEA was that it failed to discriminate between different levels of ability in students and ignored the differences between “hard” subjects and “soft options” as they are frequently described. Well here is evidence that it does discriminate.

The suggestion advanced in the recent The NZ Initiative report “Spoiled by Choice”[1] that we introduce a “weighted relative performance index” which would even out the differences or, at least, reorganise them into a more acceptable pattern.

This would take us back into one of the worst features of the old School Certificate approach with its “hierarchy of means”. It worked like this. Student’s performance in a set of “gold standard” subjects (English, Maths, Science and Biology if my memory is right) would establish their true ability. The performance of a set of students in another subject, let’s call it Medieval War Machines, would be referenced back to the performance of that group of students in the gold standard set. This would establish with “scientific accuracy” the mean for Medieval War Machines and would be the basis on which the students were scaled.

One of the factors that blew the whistle on this was the scaling down, to low levels, of Māori students with high levels of fluency in Maori but less impressive performance in the gold standard set of subjects – it was all highly open to challenge and quite hidden – the boffins in the back rook controlled the future lives of so many people.

Actually the replacing of “not achieved / achieved” with “not achieved / achieved / merit and excellence” was the most significant compromise made to NCEA and The NZ Initiative Report rightly notes this in the excellent section on compromises. However my recollection is that it was not as tied to the introduction of Achievement Standards as the report records. I remember the day when the notion of some passes being formally recognised as being better than other passes.

Dr Lockwood Smith, Minister of Education, at the time, established a Principals Lead Group to assist with the final development and introduction and I was fortunate to be able to serve on it. It was a group of two caucuses – the more liberal and the more conservative. One day, at a meeting in Wellington, an NZQA official came into the meeting and proposed the “achieved, merit and excellence” categories for recording success. I and several others saw this as a fundamental abrogation of the principles of standards-based assessment. The conservative wing were joyous, at last their students would receive the recognition they so deserved and it would be clear that they were better students than those in the schools represented by those of us who had reservations.

A grand irony of this is that very soon, those who had supported the differentiation of recognition of performance by and large turned their backs on NCEA and imported an examination into their schools that would allow them to carry on without change. That is their right and I have always respected it. But a key issue in the development of NCEA is that it was a development that would benefit markedly the students who were not in the university-headed group which current stands at 28% of the school cohort but great weight was placed on the views of those who led schools full of students for whom NCEA did not have the relevance it had for other students.

NCEA has a capacity to allow the other 72% to proceed along pathways that will help them become well-qualified and employed. It is not an accident that the recent figures released show that the institution that leads the tertiary sector in terms of earning power of students measured five years after completion, is a polytechnics strongly committed to standards-based learning and to seeing NCEA as a most powerful pathway across the divide between secondary school and tertiary providers. It works!


[1] Lipson, B (2018) Spoiled by Choice, The New Zealand Initiative, Wellington

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