I was Proxime Accessit this year at an NCEA school in Central Auckland.

Losing out on Dux was never really important to me. After all, winning would only result in my name being put up in the hall for kids to emptily stare at.

But while I had completed Level 3 English and a Scholarship exam in Year 12, and studied difficult subjects like Physics or Calculus, the Dux recipient had exempted herself from any Math, Science, Scholarship exams or extra subjects. Our quantity and quality of attainment, all subjects being equal, were near-identical, but my miniscule credit deficit was all that mattered.

I couldn’t help but wonder: why did my school not consider my more demanding curriculum?

My school’s administration dismissed the concept of subject difficulty as merely an ‘artificial construct’, and claimed such an attitude was ‘consistent’ among the vast majority of NCEA schools. But subject hierarchies are by no means unprecedented. In the United States, rigour of coursework is a standard factor universities look at, and students have ‘weighted’ grade point averages to reflect the difficulty of their classes. Some New Zealand schools, such as King’s College, in fact, also weight their courses in ranking students’ performances.

I had thus initially thought, upon almost sparking ‘DuxGate’, that my school’s priorities were all warped, but I was wrong. The vast majority of our schools do not weight subjects, simply because New Zealand’s university acceptance framework doesn’t. Nearly all high school subjects, whether Calculus, Printmaking, Media or Home Economics, are ‘University Approved’ – and in our universities’ admission cycles, ‘University Approved’ subjects all have equal weight (this excludes Engineering courses and certain University of Auckland courses). Therefore, schools promote studying anything at all as an identical means to success, and the Dux, or ‘most successful’, reflects this mindset.

It is easy to see why the NZQA and universities have adopted this approach. Everyone has different strengths and skillsets that contribute to a complete world. More ‘University Approved’ subjects enable further study in more fields.

But assigning acting, building or painting a similar academic status as Calculus, Science or History completely misses the mark. You can be illiterate and innumerate, yet an outstanding painter or actor, and excel in a multitude of relevant standards. Moreover in countries like the UK, where exams, unlike here, aren’t graded on a curve, math and science students, for example, regularly underperform due to tougher exams. There will always be exceptions, but the overall trends in student achievement suggest that subject difficulty is not at all an ‘artificial construct’ irrelated to achievement.

As well as that, chances are more ‘difficult’ subjects will get you further in life – the five highest-paying college majors in the US were all some form of engineering, while the lowest-paying were social work, theology and ECE – subjects where emotional, not academic intelligence, is the key to success. In New Zealand, performing arts has been the lowest-paid college degree for years. By no coincidence, disparities of difficulty and future success, between classically academic subjects (Sciences, Law) and other fields correlate significantly.

Knowing this, it is great that we value everyone’s potential, but shouldn’t we, in determining our top academic performers, recognize certain pathways as more challenging and likely to be rewarding? We should be encouraging our young people to embark on the most fulfilling, but also fruitful, careers possible, but NCEA’s system, which seems to have rubbed off on to universities, does not encourage that at all. Students studying easier and tougher subjects compete on forcibly equal footing, and the latter are unjustly rendered inferior. Furthermore, even if all data supporting disparities is negated, surely any school that bills its Dux as the ‘top academic achiever’ (like mine) has a duty to emphasize, well, academic subjects – subjects that, by common consensus, can be constantly improved upon through further study.

An additional major shortcoming of our system is that according to university criteria, only your best five subjects are ever relevant. I lost Dux despite studying six subjects, one more than my competition, because not all were counted. My passed NCEA Scholarship exam was also completely ignored. And most perplexedly, at that same awards ceremony, a Year 12 girl who had decided to study all Level 3 subjects, yet still performed to an outstanding standard, lost the Year 12 Merit Cup to someone with a marginally higher GPA, but with all his credits at Level 2 – a full curriculum level lower.

This all begs another question: why is it appropriate to outright ignore certain student achievement? Accomplishments beyond the needed framework, though irrelevant to university admissions, are no less impressive or valuable to one’s intellectual growth, and should not be any less worthy of recognition. We must be careful we aren’t failing our next generation by teaching them to only value the bare minimum for success (what happened to ‘the sky’s the limit’?). It almost seems like we don’t have faith in our education system if we encourage students to put in as little effort as necessary.

Now, you could undoubtedly call me a bad sport. Though I feel one aspect of good sportsmanship almost never mentioned is questioning decisions you perceive as incorrect. Challenging dubious outcomes, after all, is simply in pursuit of fair play. I have realized from this (albeit non-sporting) exercise that I cannot assign my award legitimacy. The young woman who beat me was spectacular at her classes, rightfully deserving all her prizes in Drama, Media and so on. But forgoing Math and Science in favour of less academic subjects and being declared the best, all-round, academic achiever adds up all wrong.

There are no benchmarks in NCEA beyond achievement at your chosen level – it is so reluctant to assign greater value to certain endeavours that performing an entire curriculum level above expectations won’t impact your relative success. I’m not suggesting that the state immediately starts ranking subjects, but we need to consider whether this egalitarian narrative is misleading our students. Different course choices may lead to unequal outcomes in life, but all need not be turned on its head. NCEA’s sentiments towards absolute course equality are as unrealistic as they are heartwarming, and something needs to change.

Until then, I shall advise my sister, who finished Year 11 with the Girls’ Merit Cup under her belt, to load up on her Photography, P.E. and Polynesian Dance if she wishes to continue being a top scholar.

7 COMMENTS

  1. A well-rounded argument but I feel you are essentially dealing with Subjective vs Objective. There is no way you can measure the worth of a subject. Your attempt at judging a subjects worth based on income is an application of a particular ideology. The MOE could not apply such ideology to the system as our curriculum has multiple measures of achievement and the ultimate goal is to create lifelong learners that contribute in a positive way to society. Creating a hierarchy based on the financial worth of a graduate goes against everything the NZ education system stands for.

    The Auckland University Engineering course restricts access to their programmes because there are so many applicants to their courses not because they believe their area of study to be academically superior.

    While schools award academic trophies based on GPA’s, courses and credits they also award it on other hidden values such as the demonstration of high-level Key Competencies and positive contribution to the school.

    You should advise your sister to take the subjects she is passionate about and finds fulfilling. Genuine academics and lifelong learners do not focus on rewards and recognition they love learning for the sake of it.

  2. The Dux this year fully deserved her award. I see where you are coming from, but believe that you are being salty due to the lack of recognition. To skip to the point, you shouldn’t care. All of us worked hard this year in level 3, just because you consider your subjects to fall under a higher level of thinking does not mean that they should be recognized as such. I’d like to see you take Drama, Media, Photography, and Excel as well as the top performing students did. Complaining about our educational system, especially at Onehunga High School, is pathetic. If you’d wished for your higher grade subjects to be recognized as you see them, then you should have gone to Kings, or better yet; a school in the USA.

  3. Hello everyone its me again Filip (the original poster)
    I was unable to edit this post so I have decided to leave a comment instead

    After completing my third and final MLP Friendship is Magic Marathon my inner self had been awakened, not only mentally but also spiritually. I felt as if something was not right in my life. I should be happy with my achievement! Not writing lengthy emails to this wack education forum complaining about my academic success.

    I began meditating, spending hours at a time contemplating the very essence of what it takes to be the NCEA DUX. I quit internet porn and instead replaced my crippling addiction with gardening. I grow a large variety of lettuce as well as various tomato species and the odd lot of herbs. My favorite is basil but I love starting the day with a Fennel, pine needle and almond milk smoothie. I regularly go on nature walks where I feel infatuated by the breathtaking landscapes and ever changing animal populations. In fact I have been enjoying this so much I have decided to undertake research on the ecosystem possibly considering a career in bird / nature watching. Providing guided tours of the local environment as well as wild life.

    I’m finally at zen, not only with myself but this very planet I call home.

    Thank you for reading
    https://akk.li/pics/anne/jpg

  4. Excellent article. I agree with you 100%.

    Well done – not only on your achievements this year, but on fighting for what’s fair. And awarding such a prize to someone who has only done easy subjects that don’t come close to the academic rigour of, say, physics or calculus is a joke.

  5. Auckland University Engineering Course does prefer Students who have studied Physics and Calculus. I was asked to supply a reference from my Math and Physics teachers. Seems ridiculous you can apply to study Medicine at Auckland without studying Chemistry or Biology. The NCEA is fundamentally flawed the problem no one is brave enough to question the integrity of the system. At the top universities in the UK only the traditional academic subjects are considered for University application subjects such as Home Economics , cooking , economics , accounting , and law amongst other are excluded.

  6. I cannot agree with Mr Vachuda.
    1. Mr Vachuda makes the unsubstantiated claim that STEM subjects are harder than subjects like media studies and drama – but “difficulty”, somewhat like “beauty”, can be said to be in the eye of the beholder. Further, if this logic is taken further, one would assume that certain STEM subjects must be more “difficult” than other STEM subjects – but who is to say which one is worth more?
    2. Mr Vachuda makes the somewhat contentious claim that the more “difficult” subjects (ie STEM subjects) “will get you further in life”, and uses pay as a way to define this. Again, this is problematic and short-sighted – one can have a job that pays enough (yet not the highest paying), and yet with good job satisfaction and good work-life balance means this person may be claimed to have gotten “further in life”. Mr Vachuda seems to have confused pay with success. As the old saying goes, “money does not buy happiness”.
    3. Lastly, Mr Vachuda makes the claim that the school’s dux is the school’s top academic achiever. Mr Vachuda may not be aware that the word “dux” comes from Latin meaning “leader”. While many schools choose their duches based on academic success, I have long believed that this award implies a duty to lead. In my opinion, Mr Vachuda’s comments reflect a degree of “sour grapes”, and not the actions of a true leader – his comments at the end about what he would recommend to his sister reflects this since if he truly believes that “harder” subjects enable one to go further in life, why would he suggest to his sister to not pursue the aforementioned “harder” subjects?
    4. Finally, I urge Mr Vachuda to learn to find value from within, rather than rely on prizes and titles from without to prove self-value. In life, there will be many times when you do not get recognition for what you have done – or worse, you get wrongly blamed. Titles like “Dux” mean nothing in the longer run. It is what you achieve, and how you continue to strive to achieve, that matters ultimately. That is my experience.

  7. I agree with the general idea of the post. Dux should be given to the best academic student in my opinion.
    Almost all students know it themselves that STEM subjects in general are harder. I think it is somewhat delusional to think otherwise.
    For more context, I was the Dux for my school. I think it was because I had more credits than other students and that I took more subjects in total but I cannot confirm this. However, I strongly feel like I shouldn’t have been the Dux because there was at least one other student who was ‘smarter’ or performed better than me. However, this student didn’t even get runner-up since other people took ‘easier’ courses than him and got more overall credits.
    Luckily for you, this title is completely meaningless tertiary education. Whether they/you deserve the title, will be shown in their grades in university. There are very little benefits aside from the prize money I got. Actually, I would even go as far as saying I probably ‘lost’ more than I gained. Being judged for being the ‘fake’ dux, losing self confidence and respect leading to suicidal thoughts are some of the perks you missed out on.

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