NCEA is peculiar. On the one hand, it’s a robust qualifications system that challenges students at all levels, and promotes educational achievement through Merit and Excellence endorsements. On the other hand, though, grade boundaries can be arbitrary, there can be major discrepancies across examinations, and over half of the standards sat are increasingly becoming disregarded by tertiary institutions.

So, the big question, one facing students and parents everywhere: Is NCEA worth it?

A national qualification is fantastic. Systems like the GCSE, Cambridge, IB, etc are fantastic, and so is NCEA in principle – the existence of a nationally recognised qualification is great, and I’m not questioning whether we need one or not. My point here is that NCEA, in and of itself, is flawed.

Firstly, we have internal assessments. These, from a student’s perspective, are a godsend – an easier way to achieve with Excellence. This is great, but the principle here is that a student should never have an easier time achieving a standard based on who’s marking it! With an internal assessment, if a student doesn’t achieve with Excellence, they can resubmit a paper, and then can be reassessed. Externals don’t afford this luxury, and are more robust because of that. For those of you crying about environmental factors – students subjected to forms of abuse should talk to staff about sitting exams separately, at a later time, etc. Students who did not get a good sleep, partied the night before, or caused themselves to underperform in an exam should not basically be entitled to four attempts to pass. Not only this, but without moderation measures (which, yes, are in place, but I’ll talk about this in a second), different schools can assess students differently depending on their interpretation of the standard. This is, obviously, a major problem. If my child is attending, for instance, Mount Albert Grammar School, I don’t want them assessed differently to someone from Epsom Girls Grammar, or Northland College, or Burnside High. Yes, this is partially solved with moderation, but that can only come when NCEA or an official, external, moderator moderates an entire standard across all schools. When moderators/check-markers come from inside the school, that’s where potential regional and school-based bias can come into play.

Grade Boundaries. NCEA has the NAME system – Not Achieved, Achieved, Merit, Excellence – and these are, essentially, arbitrary titles. When compared to something like ABCDEF, or a percent score, candidates are essentially rendered unable to determine what percentage of answers they got correct. Similarly, examinations in paper format (ie written exams) often have a mix of questions worth different levels, and students need to acquire a specific quantity of questions at a given level to attain that level. For instance, AS91390 (Chemistry, Demonstrate understanding of thermochemical principles and the properties of particles and substances, 2014). To get M6 (worth 6 “points”, and I use the term loosely) in Question One, a student needs 4 responses correct to (at least) Merit level. In Question Two, M6 requires 3 Merits, and in Question Three, 4 Merits again. This nets the student 18 “points” and gets them a Merit, barely missing an Excellence. What’s ridiculous here is that getting M5 on all three just gets the student to Merit. Hell, in some papers, getting an E8 on one question — one question! — nets a pass for the entire paper. This is solved with percentage pass grades — with a 50% mark being a pass, 75% being Merit, and 90% being Excellence, for example. None of this airy and arbitrary marks being tossed about.

Finally, the elephant in the room. Because of the reasons I’ve outlined above (mainly inconsistencies within marking for internals), Universities are basically ignoring internal achievement standards when assessing candidates. So most of a year’s work goes down the drain. For someone like me, who achieved all of their Level 2 internal assessments at Excellence, that strikes a chord, because therefore my work is ignored in favour of examinations where:

(a) the content is unpredictable,

(b) I can, and do, succumb to examination anxiety,

(c) I am treated as if I am a cheater (side note: assessors have to check the toilet once you’ve used it, in case you managed to stash notes there. Very disconcerting knowing someone’s standing outside waiting to inspect where you’ve just emptied your bowels)

Whilst, yes, the goal of external examination is (and I do actually support this) to uphold the integrity of the examination. But when NZQA investigates when quite a few people use the bathroom (blame the chili) is when the system’s gone too far.


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