Introducing NCEA

Reflecting on Education Review's biggest topics from the past 20 years


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The introduction of the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) was one of the key changes to New Zealand secondary school education over the past 20 years.

NCEA was phased in from 2002 to 2004, leaving School Certificate, Sixth Form Certificate and Bursary qualifications in the past. NCEA replaced the more traditional exam-based qualifications which yielded percentages and A, B, C and D grades, with a system that awards credits for Not Achieved, Achieved, Merit, or Excellence through a mix of internally and externally assessed standards.

ExamsThe move to standards-based assessment – which essentially measures students’ learning in relation to benchmarks of expected level of performance – saw a departure from a system that hinged on scaling and norm-based assessment and consequently failed a large proportion of those assessed.

Its introduction sparked controversy at the time. The credits available through straightforward, non-academic courses were far simpler to obtain than those in the more complex academic subjects. Others have berated the fact that under the NCEA students have more choice of excluding modules they do not want to enter from a subject.

While the introduction of achievement standards was a vast improvement on the crude and unwieldy unit standards which preceded them, the breaking down of subjects into small components – standards – that then had to be assessed consistently across all schools, remained problematic for many. It introduced flexibility for learners, which was generally perceived as a good thing, but with this came problems with maintaining quality and consistency across all schools.

Peter Lyons said in an NZHerald opinion piece at the time, “We are back to the problem of how to ensure this national qualification is administered with the same validity at Gore High School as it is at Mt Roskill Grammar. A further problem arises if the economics teacher is an easier marker than the geography teacher down the corridor.”

The proportion of internally assessed work subject to checks increased from three per cent in 2006 to 10 per cent in 2008 after a team of full-time moderators was employed.

In 2015 Education Minister Hekia Parata described the moderation process for NCEA, which is driven by the New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA), as “thorough”. A number of independent reviews have supported the integrity of NCEA assessment and the Minister has taken action when schools were found not to be meeting NZQA’s moderation standards.

NCEA is certainly a much sturdier vehicle than it once was. One of the major outcomes of the NCEA overhaul that followed the State Services Commission review in 2006 was to link the achievement standards more closely to the national curriculum. This, in addition to a number of other tweaks and changes, has helped to establish a qualification that is generally perceived as more reliable.

However, it still faces problems. This year, three mathematics exams contained errors, sparking new concerns about NCEA.

Concerns like this have caused some schools to opt for alternative systems over the years, which the Ministry of Education has allowed. A small number of New Zealand schools offer the International Baccalaureate and a larger number offer the Cambridge International Examination system. Some offer the NCEA as well as an alternative system, allowing their students to choose one or the other, or both.

NZQA has indicated a commitment to bettering NCEA. In its Statement of Intent for 2012/13 to 2014/15, NZQA stated that, among other objectives, it is focusing on facilitating an integrated approach to education quality assurance and meeting the challenges created by assuring cross-institution and cross-border qualifications.


More coverage in Education Review:

NCEA vs other systems:

Transportability of NCEA:

Beyond NCEA:

Exam errors:

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