By: Simon Collins

A South Auckland school that will be forced to hold external exams for the first time says the latest changes to school assessment are “a gigantic step backwards”.

Kia Aroha College in Ōtara regards exams as “a colonial system” and does not make any of its mainly Māori and Pasifika students sit them.

But principal Haley Milne said her students would be forced to sit exams under a new structure for the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) which will increase the proportion of externally assessed learning units from 30 per cent now to 50 per cent.

“I think it’s a gigantic step backwards,” Milne said.

“I feel like it’s returning to the dark days of School Certificate and Sixth Form Certificate, where it was really external assessments.”

“There’s a certain type of young people that do well in exams, and there is obviously a majority of young people that don’t, that happen to be Māori and Pacific,” she said.

“We should have the opportunity to choose which assessment method is the best method for our young people, rather than having a blanket rule.”

At the other end of the educational spectrum, Auckland Grammar School headmaster Tim O’Connor welcomed the changes as a sign that Education Minister Chris Hipkins has listened to school principals.

Last year O’Connor said an advisory group that proposed abolishing external exams in NCEA Level 1 and awarding a quarter of the credits at Levels 2 and 3 for a project or internship was “in la-la land”.

“We’ve been through a bit of heartache, but it’s very heartening to see that a mid-way point has been reached,” he said.

“From what I have seen, it’s a sensible move to have external assessment at each level as a compulsory part of the qualification.”

The new system aims to make NCEA more coherent by reducing the number of learning units available to around 20 credits in four “chunks” per subject, or a maximum of 100 or 120 credits for five or six subjects, at each level.

That will reduce the marking workload for teachers and reduce the pressure of constant assessments for students. Lynfield College student Emily Gossen said she tried for 200 credits in NCEA Level 1, way more than the 80 she needed to pass.

However, the changes will also “rebalance the number of credits available for internally and externally assessed achievement standards” to a “50:50 split”.

That was the intention when NCEA started in 2002, but the proportion of internally assessed credits has risen gradually over the past 17 years to 70 per cent, partly because many schools feel it is a fairer way to assess students’ learning than a three-hour exam, and partly because the pass rates in internally assessed units are higher.

Secondary Principals’ Association president Mike Williams welcomed the changes as “a really good pragmatic solution”.

“In five years’ time [after the changes are phased in fully] there definitely will be less of an emphasis on assessment all the time,” he said.

“Hopefully we will reduce the, ‘If it’s not in the test, do I need to study it?’ mentality, and focus more on the learning.”

James Morris, who chairs the rival Secondary Principals’ Council of the Post Primary Teachers’ Association (PPTA), said lifting external assessment back to about half the learning units would improve the system’s credibility and reduce teachers’ marking workload.

PPTA president Jack Boyle also welcomed the likely reduced workload for both teachers and students in fewer but bigger assessments.

Thames-based youth psychologist Steve Williams said reducing the pressure of constant assessments would be good for students’ mental health.

“By redefining that balance, hopefully there are times when teens can actually engage in the process of peer socialisation and maybe even having fun!” he said.


  1. All governments have insisted on cheap teachers because of the vast sums of money involved in raising teacher salaries. This is not the teachers fault. If NZ wants an educated population then the Government must pay.

  2. The changes do not go far enough. We need to limit internal assessment to 25% maximum of the required credits i.e. a max. of 15 credits of the 50 required at each year level. Also, more emphasis on content, not skills.

  3. Please, let’s stop being so introverted and looking only at the New Zealand scene! It is time to challenge ourselves about what we believe education needs to deliver in the 21st century! We are at a critical time in NZ education and we are now well behind the research-based progress in education being made in many other countries. Hopefully, the changes in NCEA signal the beginning of bigger considerations. We should not think about the changes for 2021 as the final statement. Rather, they signal the development of a more holistic and more valuable and wide-ranging assessment system that includes both internal and external assessments. While subject-based learning remains important, the increased application of Diverse Literacies and Numeracy, together with the development of Competence Based and Concept-Based Inquiry must lead NZ’s education to be Future Ready. These ideas are the subjects of my 4th ebook just published and available.


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