Section Three

Issues and concerns about NCEA

ERO visited these 12 schools because they were identified as having made NZC more visible at senior levels of the school. While not all schools had made as much progress at senior levels as others, these schools have worked to integrate the values and principles of the NZC in their school curriculum. Several school leaders reported the challenges they experienced in implementing the NZC with the NCEA. Some schools did not mention some of the issues.

Knowledge about NCEA requirements

Communication between the Ministry, NZQA and teachers appeared to be an issue for teachers in many of the schools. This had led to variable understanding about the principles and implementation of standards-based assessment. Some teachers were familiar with standards and confident about moderation procedures. Others were not confident about implementing NCEA assessment.

Writing assessment tasks

ERO noted a range of experiences and attitudes to writing assessment tasks. Some teachers used only Te Kete Ipurangi, NZQA, or commercial exemplars because they were not sufficiently confident to produce their own tasks. Several teachers spoke to ERO about wanting to use one task for standards from different subjects but were unsure about how to do that. In some cases, teachers focused on tasks without showing understanding of intent of the standard.

Teachers raised the difficulties faced by some teachers, who are the only teacher of a subject in a school or who work in a remote area of the country, to increase their knowledge or gain confidence in setting and marking tasks.

Teachers with confidence in their knowledge of the subject specific standards and in task writing tended to choose from a wider variety of standards to complement their curriculum.


The apparent differences between NZQA’s intent and teachers’ understanding and experiences of NCEA raised concerns about the effectiveness of communication between the two groups. In different schools and in different regions, teachers expressed frustration with moderation practices. They were concerned they received little or no information about why a task did not meet the standard or level required. They:

  • wanted to use moderator feedback as part of their inquiry - but the feedback had insufficient detail
  • perceived that responses from moderators were inconsistent from year to year in relation to the same task
  • perceived the moderator was familiar with tasks from exemplars but not new tasks designed by the school and consequently less inclined to accept new tasks
  • challenged requirement for students to use subject-specialist language to achieve a standard, as this encouraged teaching to the standard, as opposed to students being able to demonstrate their knowledge in their own words
  • were already concerned about the assessment requirements and moderation procedures for the new Digital Technologies & Hangarau Matihiko curriculum.

NZQA priorities

Teachers in several schools commented on the apparent shift in focus outlined at Principal’s Nominee seminars: schools had worked towards online assessment, and were then told the focus now was on the STEM target for Māori and Pacific students. They were concerned that Māori and Pacific students were already committed to courses, so the timeframe for reaching the target set was unreasonable. An added frustration was the reduction of online options for assessment.

Support and PLD

Teachers who are new to their subject and/or work in remote schools do not feel supported to understand the standards or write suitable assessment tasks in their subject areas. They are concerned such support is left to subject associations or the initiative of teachers in some regions, with the result that teachers’ knowledge and practice are variable.

Some teachers reported that some of NZQA’s Best Practice workshops, including online workshops, had been cancelled in their region. Teachers who were involved in or who wanted to consider cross-subject teaching could not access support for writing relevant tasks.

Standards not fitting the achievement objective or front of the NZC

Some teachers raised concern that moderation of assessment in specific subjects now required reference to specific contexts and this prevented their use of local contexts for learning.

Standards and credits - influencing decisions

Some students and their parents made decisions based on credit value, rather than the relevance of the content of the subject, that is, they looked at performance rather than learning. In some cases, students selected external standards because they offered most credits. They were motivated to gain high numbers of endorsements.

Students’ approach to gaining credits and how they perceived their value varied. A few students expressed the view that internals were ‘easy’ and they had gathered a high number of credits without feeling their course had been a valid pathway. Others said it was inequitable that some students had gained endorsements from ‘easy’ credits.

In spite of the attempts by senior leaders in most of the schools to limit the numbers of standards/credits gained by senior students, ERO found some incidents of ‘credit creep’, where teachers felt they should offer more than the minimum and/or students felt they should achieve a higher number than required for each level of NCEA.

Teachers also expressed the concern that some students may not be learning essential features of a subject because they do not attempt externals; that the learning is not valued for itself but rather for the credits that were available.

Some teachers thought the marking schedules were not available for scrutiny and voiced the concern that standards were being scaled by means of the marking schedules. This is clearly not the intention of NCEA and highlights the need for improved communication with teachers.

Parents learning the system from their child

Although all the schools held parent information evenings, there was concern parents were receiving information about NCEA, particularly about the number of credits and endorsements, from their child, which might contribute to credit-gathering. Parental and community knowledge of what NCEA was designed to achieve and what constituted success was a frequently identified concern in these schools. 

University requirements-backwash right to Year 9

Some schools identified that the requirements at Level 3 and UE, set by universities, was having an effect on curriculum development and course selection as far back as Year 10. While schools were prepared to back map from Level 3 and possibly UE to inform pathway planning and students’ course decisions, they were not convinced that universities should have such a strong influence on their curriculum. Examples raised included that, for UE, students needed to have 14 credits in three subjects. Currently, it is possible to aggregate only maths, science, technology standards to count as one domain for the purposes of the 14 credit requirement, whereas the logical combination for a health science pathway of social science and biology does not count.

Schools also raised the issue of university-specific scholarships that motivated students to achieve particular standards and levels in NCEA because of the sums of money involved rather than to follow their own learning pathway.

“Weird pressures come on students to decide what university gives what scholarship…drives credit acquisition. Universities need to catch up.”

SLT member, Logan Park High School

Subject senior curriculum guides not up to date

Teachers commented that teaching and learning guides for subjects are outdated. They recognised the potential of these documents as useful resources in planning curriculum and wanted to receive up-to-date guidance.

Unintended consequences

Several principals and teachers commented on the effect on student progress and achievement of the Better Public Service target, 2012-2017, for 85 percent of 18 year olds to have attained NCEA Level 2, by 2017. Schools responded to the requirement to reach this target in a variety of ways, such as:

  •  identifying groups of students who were at risk of not achieving NCEA for extra support
  • monitoring student achievement of credits
  • revising courses to make Level 2 more accessible.

These interventions resulted, in many cases, in lifting achievement of NCEA Level 2. In the best cases, they also improved teachers’ knowledge about individual student needs, interests and aspirations. The result in some schools, however, was that the balance of curriculum and achievement was tilted towards achievement, with less regard for meaningful student pathways and for development of key competencies.

Limiting credits - wellbeing

Each of these schools had taken steps to manage the workload of students and of teacher with regard to numbers of assessments and credits. There remains, however, a justifiable concern that each school is alone in making such decisions and there were risks in being seen to diminish the rigour of assessment if the school could not report high rates of success in credit numbers and endorsements. Schools universally agreed there is too much assessmen

Schools were looking for national leadership about the time needed to educate and assure the community about any changes, at a system level, rather than school by school, and not leaving the responsibility to fall on any one school to justify their decisions. Schools were concerned such decisions, that benefited individual students, risked negative judgments about the school.

Cost in money and time for curriculum and PLD

These schools had given considerable thought and time to developing their curriculum to implement the NZC so they challenged and supported students to develop the key competencies. Their approach arose from the determination to provide student-centred curriculum, based on the principles of NZC.

Schools were concerned about the extent to which they had to seek out PLD to support this implementation. Schools had sent staff overseas and to other schools, and purchased commercial PLD programmes, all at considerable cost. Allowing time for teachers to meet was important but a cost to staffing. Teachers needed time to discuss initiatives: what they had tried, what they had learnt, and what to do next to improve their pedagogy.

Hosting other schools who wanted to understand what they had done was equally consuming of time and professional attention. Schools questioned the appropriateness and efficacy of PLD that they agreed was important, such as improving the progress of priority groups, or targets related to the Community of Learning, but wanted this PLD set in the context of their school-wide priorities. For example, schools wanted PLD on how to make the best use of innovative learning areas and integrating learning. This was particularly the case where new learning spaces were being designed.

Access to destination data

Several schools expressed their frustration that better information about student destinations was not available to schools. They considered accurate, timely outcome data would let them review their curriculum in light of the success of pathways students had taken beyond school.