Like so many other New Zealanders, I am a product of the NCEA qualification system. I sat NCEA Level 1 back in 2005, three years after the certificate was first introduced in 2002.

As 15 year olds, we knew the system wasn’t perfect, but believed it was better than its predecessor. We were told the wrinkles would be ironed out in a few years and it was just bad luck they were figuring it out at the same time we were sitting it.

I didn’t think about NCEA too much after I left school, but have begun considering it again after becoming an education reporter. What strikes me most is the system still seems broken. Students are stressed, teachers are overworked and employers seem to have no idea what any of it means. What happened to the promise of ‘let her settle and she’ll be right’?

I started amassing credits in 2003, as a Year 9 student, through my out-of school music lessons. This continued throughout high school and I’ve never been certain whether my piano teacher was trying to incentivise learning while competing with a more insistent educational system than her small music school, or whether she, like so many other educators, wanted to ease the future burden of NCEA looming over us all.

She wasn’t the only teacher to begin helping us collect credits before Year 11; in Year 10 my science class sat an achievement standard based on what we’d learned during our module on the biology of an eye. The idea was sold to us as getting a ‘head-start’ for next year. This was the first time I cried over an NCEA result. I’d gotten a merit.

By the time Year 11 ended, I’d earned the most credits for Level 1 at my school. My dad saw this in the school newsletter and I overheard him telling someone that I was the top student. I later had to explain that I was not in fact the top student. I had the most number of credits, but I didn’t really know what this ‘achievement’ meant. Three years into NCEA, 16-year-old me had already figured out something that official bodies are just beginning to recognise – the practice of credit chasing and more importantly, how meaningless it is when understanding how much someone has learned.

I sat two English achievement standards that I felt let down by and decided not to pursue English in Level 3. Ironically, I think, I am now a writer, something I dreamed of becoming but felt was too far out of my reach. How could I be a writer when I couldn’t pass an English standard?

It took me ten years in between leaving school to finding my career, and I can’t help but wonder about the part the NCEA framework played in that.

I appealed both of those results with the encouragement of my teacher, but my appeals were dismissed. The process of failing once is difficult enough, but when your teacher tells you you deserved better, you get your hopes up. To fail again is to fall again.

I’d often spend longer on design projects instead of accounting homework, because although the work was more labour-intense, it was only assessed as unit standards, which made it feel easier. It wasn’t that I didn’t get a mark beyond achieved, I couldn’t. One less thing to worry about.

However, this meant in 2007 when they introduced endorsed certificates, i.e. NCEA with merit or excellence, I was not eligible because I hadn’t had the ability to mindread NZQA to know that I’d needed to choose more achievement-standard assessed subjects. I was now into my final year of NCEA and it was way too late to backtrack.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I studied design after high school. It seemed like I’d unintentionally projected myself along this pathway.

You know what I’ve always wanted to try? Drama. And history. And art history. And maybe even German. The structure of NCEA demands students select subjects which ultimately lead to specific pathways, without giving them a chance to try the subject first.

As an education reporter, it is fascinating to hear about all the things that teachers, schools and students are doing. I think teaching and learning has come a long way, and I find myself wishing I could be in school now and completing a project I am passionate about, or learn about emotional wellbeing or explore a number of different areas of learning without focusing on assessment.

I’ve only briefly touched upon the other facet of NCEA which concerns me – student wellbeing. Although I am a believer in healthy stress (in fact, as a journalist perhaps part of me even craves a tight deadline), I think the mammoth which is NCEA creates an unnecessary emotional weight on students.

Do we really need three years (or in some cases, more) of assessment? Do we need a separate assessment for not only each subject, but for each topic within each subject? With so many students beginning to sit NCEA assessments before Year 11, how early is too early? Shouldn’t we instead focus on the learning and understanding students are receiving, rather than how our school is rating in terms of NCEA marks?

Although I think learning is now more exciting than ever, I am not at all envious of the assessment system. From what I can see it hasn’t changed for the better at all. It hasn’t innovated, it hasn’t kept up with the pace of changes in education and it hasn’t improved outcomes for teachers, employers, schools and especially students.

The results are in for NCEA at levels 1, 2 and 3: Not achieved.


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