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.