With educational organisations all over New Zealand making their submissions on the review of NCEA, we have a rare opportunity to look deeply at our education system and ask ourselves what we’re really trying to achieve when we assess student work, and if what we are teaching them is even worth assessing.

New Zealand and international evidence shows that in testing-intensive jurisdictions there’s a real danger of putting the cart before the horse when assessing students by making the test the point of the learning. This can create a pernicious idea that learning is something that only happens with a teacher while you’re sitting at a desk in a classroom, and the only type of assessment that has validity are examinations testing students’ ability to memorise content.

There are plenty of examples of exceptional teaching and learning happening in our schools but many of our students are also engaging with interesting material in creative and future-focused ways. What we need is a qualification system that rewards and acknowledges the range of knowledge and competencies of our young people so they all gain a solid foundation on which to build their lives.

A continued focus on the traditional 20th century approaches will result in a system that doesn’t allow time and recognition for learning that happens across curricular and outside the classroom. We’re educating human beings; the goal should be to support our young people to become well-rounded people who work diligently to create lives they can enjoy, who are curious about the world, and who are engaged with their communities.

That’s not to say that we don’t need ways of measuring student performance against standards and criteria. We need a system that clearly outlines the key skills required for success. But, we need to make sure that’s what we’re actually testing for because right now the overwhelming focus on test scores and obtaining credits is driven by the desire to create robust entry criteria for tertiary courses.

So, what would I like NCEA to look like? I’d like to continue the flexibility the current qualification allows but broaden the types of learning it recognises and what counts as evidence of learning. The current assessment methodology relies heavily on teacher knowledge and examinations to assess a narrow set of skills that are increasingly becoming redundant. If a student comes to a teacher to show them an app they’ve developed in their free time, isn’t that evidence of learning? And if it is, then shouldn’t our system recognise it?

There are definitely fundamental critical skills and knowledge that NCEA standards assess which must be retained. We know critical literacy and numeracy skills are important for leading a successful life, students need teaching that helps them develop these skills and not structures that allow avoidance. Students need to understand the non-negotiables required to gain their qualification as well as having opportunities to develop and be rewarded for their passions and interests.

We certainly require a system that allows students from all ethnicities and backgrounds to aim to be doctors, engineers, computer coders and scientists, which are vital roles in society, but we also know that many of our students want to engage in trades and creative industries and require a platform from which to build their future in ways that haven’t been fully explored yet.

New Zealand will be a better place for producing a generation of young people who feel that they have a formal qualification that recognises all aspects of their knowledge and competencies. Our society needs everyone’s best selves, and for that we need an education system that recognises students’ individual talents and attributes.


  1. Teaching to the test is what happens now. In fact, it’s even worse than under the ‘old’ system. Content and teaching is exclusively focused around achievement standards and getting students the credits. Knowledge is reduced as long as there is ‘enough’ to meet the standard. In history, the generic questions has led to massively rote-learned responses to the same question asked year after year. Nowhere near this sort of rote-learned, teach to the test, happened under the previous curriculum.


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