As every law student learns, a rescuer owes a duty of care to a victim not to worsen the victim’s plight. The same principle applies in medical ethics. A doctor’s first duty is to do no harm.

Based on the submissions on the government’s NCEA review, this duty is something Education Minister Chris Hipkins would do well to heed.

The review aims to rescue our failing NCEA assessment framework. It identifies six so-called “Big Opportunities.”  Among the proposals are halving the credits required for NCEA Level 1 (or eliminating it altogether); introducing compulsory 20-credit, student-led projects to NCEA at all levels; and extending the concept of literacy to include “digital, financial, or civic literacy.”

While NCEA certainly needs fixing, the way the government is going about it may do more harm than good. As the closing date for submissions approaches, a chorus of disapproval is emerging. And it comes from a broad church, including prominent school principals, academics and teachers.

A common criticism is the lack of an evidence-base for the proposals. As the submission from 18 Victoria University academics explains, “no research evidence in favour of them has been cited in the [Ministry’s] discussion document or, to the best of our knowledge, elsewhere.”

The Post Primary Teachers’ Association is even more damning. Noting the perils of unintended consequences, the PPTA observes there is “no evidence of the ideas floated… being tested in any way.”

Considering the proposals would bring about the most radical redesign of NCEA since its inception, this is alarming. But it is also no surprise given how poorly evidence has been deployed to inform education policy for many years. Our falling rankings in the international league tables are testimony to this failure. And this year’s elaborate korero, or ‘public consultation,’ is hardly a reliable scientific technique.

Citing our evidence-based report, Spoiled by Choice: How NCEA hampers education, and what it needs to succeed, the PPTA concluded “there are significant equity issues in the NCEA… with Maori and Pasifika students more likely to gain NCEA on the strength of disparate standards that do not constitute pathways to further education.”

Lowering the requirements for students to achieve NCEA Level 1, and demanding that they guide their own learning by completing a compulsory project, will do nothing to resolve those inequities.

Unless the Minister is careful, his NCEA review risks breaking the rescuer’s cardinal rule. Unfortunately, the victims will be the country’s school children.


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