Media release December 2005
NCEA gets thumbs up from students … now they understand the system
Students studying across all three levels of the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) regard the
assessment as a valuable qualification, and believe their teachers and parents do as well.
These findings are contained in research by the New Zealand Council for Educational Research entitled Shaping Our
Futures: Meeting Secondary Students’ Learning Needs in a Time of Evolving Qualifications, the third and final report of
the Learning Curves project.
The project explores students’ experiences of the NCEA, and describes the strategies they use to manage assessment
workloads, their perceptions of NCEA’s value as a qualification, and the ways they produce individualised
“Students are getting more and more savvy about managing their assessments, with their decision making being driven by
their strategic understanding of the assessment system as well as the factors that motivate them as learners,” says
NZCER Senior Researcher Rosemary Hipkins, who led the project.
“Their perceptions of the NCEA’s value are closely tied to their views of its relevance and to the different ways they
engage with learning and assessment. Different students actively produce quite different types of NCEA qualifications,
which allows them to keep future ‘learning pathways’ open.”
Ms Hipkins noted that over-assessment of students over the three years of NCEA could have a de-motivating impact, yet
was something that could be addressed immediately by schools.
“Students saw skipping assessments as a legitimate strategy for managing over-assessment, or for avoiding the likelihood
of failure or potentially embarrassing assessments. While skipping assessments is not new, what has changed is the
extent to which students can now make strategic decisions about how they will accumulate the credits they need for their
overall qualification, assuming they understand how the system works.”
One outcome of the study which is cause for concern is that while some students see themselves as “successful learners”,
many are more likely to see themselves as “successful collectors of NCEA credits”. These students were using
risk-management strategies to maximise credit gains with little critical regard to the value of learning gains.
“This is worrying, as such actions are no more conducive to lifelong learning than were previous methods of assessment
for qualifications, and it seems unlikely that this situation can change while students are over-assessed,” says Ms
“The ‘positive’ is that the NCEA could offer students more scope to become life long learners, yet at this stage it is
apparent that the hopes for the NCEA to become an assessment system that provides better support for lifelong learning
are ‘not yet achieved’.”
[More info and Executive Summary of Report Follow]
Scope and background – Learning Curves research
The Learning Curves project has documented changes in the subject and assessment choices offered to senior students in
six medium-sized New Zealand secondary schools between 2002 and 2004 as the National Qualifications Framework and
National Certificate of Educational Achievement reforms were progressively implemented. It has also investigated how
students perceive and make their subject choices within the context of each school’s curriculum policies and practices.
This report documents findings from the third and final year of Learning Curves and is subtitled Shaping Our Futures:
Meeting Secondary Students’ Learning Needs in a Time of Evolving Qualifications. It builds on findings from the first
report, From Cabbages to Kings, which was released in mid-2002, and the second report, Shared Pathways and Multiple
Tracks, which was released in April 2004.
The research used six case study schools (three in rural towns, three in cities) that were selected to represent a
diversity of student groups and contextual settings. In 2004 the principal and five heads of department (of English,
mathematics, science, technology, and the arts) were interviewed, as they had been in 2002 and 2003. Students at Years
11–13 were surveyed in mid-2004 with some also participating in focus groups.
Shaping Our Futures differs in approach from the first two reports as it captures differences between the schools,
rather than generalising patterns across them, as was the case with the previous reports.
The research was funded through NZCER’s Purchase Agreement with the Ministry of Education.
The New Zealand Council for Educational Research is an independent, educational research organisation which provides
educators, students, parents, policy makers, and the public with innovative and independent research, analysis, and
advice. Established in 1934 through grants from the Carnegie Corporation, it became a statutory body in 1945 and now
operates under the NZCER Act 1972 (and amendments). It is not formally attached to any government department,
university, or other educational organisation.
For more information, please visit our website: www.nzcer.org.nz.
* * * * *
Shaping Our Futures: Meeting Secondary Students’ Learning Needs in a Time of Evolving Qualifications
The Executive Summary of the third and final report
of NZCER’s Learning Curves project
Rosemary Hipkins and Karen Vaughan, with Fiona Beals, Hilary Ferral, and Ben Gardiner
This is the third in a series of reports of findings from NZCER’s Learning Curves project. The project has documented
changes in the subject and assessment choices offered to senior students in six medium-sized New Zealand secondary
schools as the NQF/NCEA qualifications reforms were progressively implemented from 2002 to 2004. It has also
investigated how students perceive and make their subject choices within the context of each school’s curriculum
policies and practices.
In 2004 the principal and five heads of department (of English, mathematics, science, technology, and the arts) were
interviewed, as they had been in 2002 and 2003. This report captures differences between the schools whereas the first
two reports generalised patterns across them.
Students at Years 11–13 were surveyed in 2004 and a number of focus group conversations were also carried out. Thus work
with the students constituted a greater proportion of the (expanded) fieldwork time than had been the case in the first
two years. Accordingly, this report has a greater focus on the students’ experiences of the NCEA than either of the
first two reports. It describes strategies students use to manage their assessment workloads for the NCEA, their
perceptions of its value as a qualification, and the ways they are positioned as active producers of an individualised
qualification, within an overarching pathways metaphor of schooling.
The report concludes with a brief “stocktake” of the NCEA, and the changes that have accompanied its implementation,
against a theoretical listing of the many deeply held ideas and assumptions that are implicated in assessment change. It
concludes that many such assumptions have yet to be addressed, and that ongoing change, on a somewhat broader front,
will be necessary if the qualifications reforms are to deliver more effective ways of credentialling learners for their
adult lives in the 21st century.
The overall philosophy of the staff, the beliefs and actions of the students, the organisational aspects of each school,
and some demographic characteristics such as location and decile, come together to create an unique institution. For
example, City Schools A and B shared some differences that set them apart from the other schools in the sample. Both are
in urban locations, close to universities and all the cultural amenities of a city. Most of the students who identified
as Asian and many of the refugee students, or students of “other” ethnicity, attended one or other of these schools.
Many students who said they skipped internal or external assessments in Year 12 or 13 English came from these schools.
In both schools students were more likely (compared to the overall sample) to choose combinations of more traditional
curriculum subjects. The similarity is interesting because the ethos of each school seemed somewhat different. City
School A—the girls’ school—had a focus on helping all students learn via broad and balanced curriculum. It had more
compulsory subjects than the other five schools, and was the only one to make English compulsory at Year 13. By contrast
City School B—a liberal, non-uniform co-educational school—had a focus on supporting greater student autonomy and
freedom in choosing appropriate subjects and pathways. Accordingly, it offered more optional choices at Years 11 and 12
than the other five schools, and almost as many choices at Year 13.
The principal of Town School E had a singular vision of seamless learning pathways through school and beyond that was
shared by key members of the senior management team. In this school, some subjects were beginning to diversify across
traditional curriculum boundaries and there was a focus on the many national certificates that could be gained within
the National Qualifications Framework, not just on the NCEA. The school’s emphasis on unit standards provided a means of
assessing course components linked to a much wider range of learning opportunities. In keeping with the gradual
broadening of learning pathways, this was the only school of the six to offer a greater number of choices at Year 13
than at Year 12.
Town Schools D and F both worked hard to accommodate the learning needs of a diverse range of students. Both were
somewhat vulnerable to the loss of more “able” students because they were in towns within driving distance of regional
cities that had a number of secondary schools. In both locations this dilemma created tensions between meeting the needs
of some students for alternative pathways and keeping other students engaged and challenged in their home-town school.
Town School F had a very active curriculum committee. There was a sense that the allocation of resources to various
combinations of courses was constantly under view. Two HODs mentioned the intention to offer half-year courses as one
way of maximising the potential for choice. HODs at Town School D similarly described a yearly process of juggling and
revising components within courses, and in the overall mix of courses offered. Nothing can be taken for granted in these
environments where there can never be an ideal solution to curriculum and timetabling challenges. Students in these two
schools also shared some patterns of responses to the NCEA. Perhaps reflecting the yearly debate and juggling of
subjects and timetables, the Year 13 students in both schools were more likely than those in the other schools to say
that NCEA results in earlier years had influenced their subject choice. The Years 11 and 12 students from all the town
schools were more likely to say they had skipped an internal assessment, and many of the Year 11 students who said they
had skipped an internal English assessment came from either Town School D or F.
City School C has the lowest decile rating of the six Learning Curves schools and has a greater proportion of students
from Mäori and/or Pacific backgrounds on the roll than any of the other five schools. In this school, the need for more
time and skills practice for students who lacked the necessary background or personal confidence to make speedy learning
gains was a common theme. Restructuring to create more learning time was being tried out at various levels of school
organisation, from the timetable structure to the content and organisation of individual courses. HODs in this school
were more likely to discuss the importance of helping some students to gain the literacy and numeracy credits that would
keep their learning pathways open beyond school. Perhaps reflecting their learning challenges and awareness of the
importance of gaining credits where they could, students in City School C were less likely than most other students to
say they had skipped an external assessment, especially the Year 12 students. The Pacific students here were more likely
than all other students to agree that the NCEA is a valuable qualification and that unit standards are easy to get.
Taking different versions of subjects
Analysis of 2003 course information led us to describe three different types of courses that we called
traditional-discipline, locally-redesigned, and contextually-focused. The 2004 fieldwork revealed patterns in the ways
students combined these types of courses, with each other and with their optional subjects.
Traditional-discipline courses look similar to the sorts of courses most students would have taken pre-NCEA and are
typically mainly assessed by full suites of achievement standards. In 2004, a majority of Year 11 students were taking
English courses of this type (77 percent). Slightly fewer took equivalent versions of science (70 percent) and fewer
still traditional-discipline mathematics (58 percent). A similar pattern was found at Year 12 where 72 percent of
students chose traditional-discipline English, 56 percent took at least one of biology, chemistry, or physics, and 46
percent chose an equivalent version of mathematics. (Note that both the science and mathematics choices are optional at
Year 12.) Compared to the overall cohort, Päkehä students were more likely to be taking traditional-discipline versions
of these “core” curriculum courses.
There are two types of alternatives to traditional-discipline courses. Locally-redesigned courses take advantage of the
NQF/NCEA flexibility to mix and match achievement and unit standards, sometimes at one or more NQF levels, sometimes
from more than one discipline area, to provide courses to meet identified learning needs of specific groups of students.
Contextually-focused courses locate learning in contexts of relevance to learners and are typically totally internally
assessed, mainly with unit standards. Fewer students took these alternative courses. A small number of Year 11 students
(10 percent) were taking alternative versions of English, and 32 percent, mainly Pacific or Mäori students, were taking
alternative versions of mathematics. At Year 12, 15 percent of students took an alternative version of English, while 23
percent took an alternative version of mathematics. Again Pacific or Mäori students tended to take this type of
mathematics. Eleven percent of students took an alternative Year 11 science course and 5 percent took an extension
course or science at another year level. In Year 12 students wanting an alternative to the traditional sciences could
often access employment-focused options such as electronics, forestry, or aqua-culture.
The cluster analysis revealed a strong tendency for students to combine both core and optional subjects of the same
“type”. For example 49 percent of all Year 11 students combined traditional discipline versions of English, mathematics,
and science. They were also likely to have chosen other traditional-discipline subjects such as history, geography,
languages, economics, and graphics. Nearly a quarter (22 percent) of the Year 11 students took combinations that
included alternative versions of the three core subjects (or in some cases that did not identify a version of English
despite its compulsory status). These students were more likely to choose combinations of optional subjects with a
strongly practical feel, such as practically-oriented versions of technology, computer studies, transition courses, or
agriculture/horticulture. The remaining 29 percent of Year 11 students either combined traditional-discipline English
with an alternative version of mathematics, or vice versa, with a corresponding “mix” of different types of optional
Similar patterns, albeit in fewer clusters, were found at Years 12 and 13. Notwithstanding the wide range of subject
choices schools offer across the senior years, there is something of a conservative feel to the combinations of subjects
students actually take in Year 13. A quarter of the responding Year 13 students had continued with
traditional-discipline versions of subjects in all three core curriculum areas (i.e. English combined with statistics
and/or calculus, and one of the three sciences). However, nearly a third of the Year 13 students were taking a subject
combination with a strongly “alternative” feel, where an alternative version of English was likely to be the only
remaining core subject. Mäori and Pacific students were over-represented in this cluster.
The relative popularity of optional subjects
The overall pattern of top-rating Year 11 options remained quite stable across the three years of the study. History (21
percent in 2004) remained the top optional choice, as it was in both 2003 (20 percent) and 2002 (21 percent), albeit
with some school-specific differences in uptake. When collated as a group, the various technology options (for example
hard materials or food technology) were also very popular. Three of the four arts subjects (visual arts, music, and
drama) were taken by 10 percent or more of students across the schools. There were some gender and ethnicity differences
in subject uptake, although these were likely to be related to school effects in some cases. For example history was
very popular at City School A and was more popular with girls overall, as well as with Päkehä students.
At Year 12, both types of mathematics and the three traditional sciences were all popular optional choices. History was
overtaken in the popularity stakes by “vocational pathways” subjects (for example chef training and journalism) and by
PE and sports studies. All three of these subjects (or subject types in the case of vocational pathways) were relatively
more popular with boys, as was physics. Other popular subjects were mostly the same as those chosen at Year 11, although
practical technology slipped below 10 percent. Again, history was more popular with girls.
Versions of English, mathematics, and sciences—all subjects that are compulsory at lower year levels—occupied the six
top-rating slots at Year 13, when almost all choices were optional. Visual arts continued to be popular, along with PE
and vocational pathways subjects. Although history continued to be taken by more than 10 percent of the cohort, its
relative popularity had slipped still further. Physics, calculus, and vocational and sports subjects were more popular
with boys, while traditional-discipline versions of English, history, geography, and the visual arts were more popular
A comparison of the Years 12 and 13 subject choice data with national trends showed that these patterns of relative
overall popularity were remarkably close to national patterns of participation in English, mathematics, and
science-related subjects. There were minor variations in uptake where other subjects could be directly compared, which
is scarcely surprising in light of the school-related variations we found in our small sample.
Students’ and teachers’ perceptions of the NCEA
In 2004 most responding students were happy with their subject choices. Most students across all three year levels saw
the NCEA as a valuable qualification and thought that their teachers and parents did too.
In 2003 some teachers reported a perception that credits gained from achievement standards were of more value than those
gained from unit standards. Views amongst the teachers on this point were mixed in 2004, with some holding strong
perceptions of difference and others saying students did not mind how their credits were gained. The students’ survey
responses showed widespread agreement that credits gained from both sources were valuable, with a slightly greater level
of support for the statement that “credits gained from achievement standards are valuable”. Where students did perceive
a difference, they were likely to feel that achievement standards had more currency in competitive situations, such as
gaining entry to university courses or seeking employment. By contrast, unit standards were valued by both teachers and
students for the opportunity they provided to assess more practical aspects of learning. Focus group comments suggested
that students might be more familiar with one type of standard than the other, depending on the type of subjects they
were taking in combination.
Many teachers were reluctant to compare the relative worth of credits gained from internal or external assessment
events, saying that they measured different things. Where differences were perceived, teachers generally saw externally
gained credits as more valuable, mainly because of concerns about moderation issues and consistency between schools.
While opinions can obviously vary between the teachers in any one school, there were some school-related differences in
these perceptions overall. Students differed from their teachers in that they placed slightly more value on credits
gained from internal assessments. They seemed to see these as the main source of credits from which to strategically
build a qualification, with externally assessed credits forming an end-of-year insurance backstop. Again, we found some
patterns of differences in responses from students in different schools. For example Town School E’s Year 13 students
tended to prefer credits for internally assessed standards, which is in line with the school’s policy of using unit
standards (always internally assessed) whenever possible.
As might be anticipated, students taking subject combinations weighted towards traditional-discipline subjects were more
likely to agree that they did well in external assessments. These students were also more likely to discuss the
motivation to strive for better learning provided by the three-level structure of the achievement standards (where it is
possible to achieve, achieve with merit, or achieve with excellence). However the same students were also more likely to
perceive they did well in internal assessments. Students taking course combinations with a more “alternative” subject
orientation were less likely to agree they did well in either external or internal assessments. For such students,
assessment may remain an anxious hurdle, no matter how it is carried out.
Students’ strategies for coping with the NCEA
The second Learning Curves report found that some teachers were becoming concerned about students who chose to skip
assessments. All the HODs were asked about this in 2004, with rather mixed results. Some were indeed very concerned and
described measures such as sending a letter home to parents. Other teachers actively helped students to decide which
assessments to skip as a means of managing their workloads.
About a quarter of Year 11 students, compared with 40 percent of Year 13 students, said they had skipped an assessment
at some time (which, for Year 13 students, could have been at any time across two-and-a-half years). Students were more
likely to have skipped an internal assessment than an external assessment, and English was the subject where this was
most likely to occur.
Many students saw choosing to skip as a legitimate strategy for managing over-assessment, or for avoiding the likelihood
of failure or potentially embarrassing assessments such as speeches in English. However the extent to which students
said they did these things themselves was somewhat less than teachers’ concerns in 2003 had led us to anticipate. Often
they simply reported that they knew others who did this, while they personally felt they could not afford to squander
any chance to gain credits. This feeling probably abated as students’ confidence and experience with the NCEA grew.
One of the HODs noted that students have always skipped assessments so this practice is not new to the NCEA. What is new
however is the extent to which students can now make strategic decisions about how they will accumulate the credits they
need for their overall qualification—provided they understand how the system works. Again, we found that the students
taking courses weighted towards traditional-discipline subjects were more likely to know how to make good strategic
decisions of this type, and accordingly to only choose to skip when they needed to maximise learning success in those
assessments they retained. By contrast, students who took more “alternative” combinations of subjects were more likely
to make ad hoc decisions, or to not be in command of their credit totals at all.
Student motivation and the “production” of a qualification
Students’ decision making for managing their assessments was influenced by their strategic understanding of the
assessment system and by the factors that motivated them as learners. Their perceptions of the NCEA’s value as a
qualification were closely tied to their views of relevance and to the different ways they engaged with learning and
assessment. Different groups of students actively participated in the production of quite different types of NCEA
qualifications, with associated differences in the “learning pathways” they kept open.
For students taking contextually-focused courses, notions of relevance tended to be tied to usefulness and applicability
of learning to everyday life, and to prospects for employment beyond school. By contrast, students taking mainly
traditional-discipline courses related relevance to future study plans or to ideas of “learning to learn”. As might be
expected, responses of students taking locally-redesigned courses tended to fall between these two poles.
Some students seemed behaviourally motivated by the NCEA. They were interested in the number of credits on offer, and
whether these were a “fair trade” for the work involved in passing. Of all the strategies for managing the NCEA
available to students, they were most likely to avoid failure (as they saw it) by skipping assessments they did not feel
confident of passing. Students taking locally-redesigned and contextually-focused courses were more likely to take such
approaches than students taking traditional-discipline courses.
Other students were more emotionally engaged with NCEA. They were aware of the potential importance of their Record of
Learning, and actively kept track of their credits. These students were more concerned to produce a point of difference
in the qualification they achieved, with an associated likelihood of increased motivation to gain merit or excellence
passes, or in some cases, simply to accumulate higher credit totals. For these students, perceived inconsistencies in
different subject teachers’ practices when making “holistic” judgements of the level achieved could be a source of
bewilderment and indignation.
A small number of students were cognitively engaged. They actively pursued challenging learning experiences, although
the satisfaction they gained from these often had to be weighed against strategic management of workload pressures from
too many assessments at the same time. These students were also motivated by the opportunity to gain merit and
excellence, although they were the students most likely to want to see such achievements acknowledged with the award of
additional credits or an acknowledgement of credit type (from unit or achievement standard) on their Record of Learning.
Learner identities and assessment careers
While some students do see themselves as successful learners, it seems that many are more likely to see themselves as
successful collectors of credits. Accordingly, they are developing assessment careers that use compliance and
risk-management strategies to maximise credit gains with little critical regard to the value of actual learning gains.
This is of concern because such learner identities and assessment careers are no more conducive to lifelong learning
than were previous methods of assessment for qualifications. It seems unlikely that this situation can change while
students are over assessed.
The NCEA has opened up so-called learning pathways. However the intended parity of esteem for qualifications has not
been matched by the reality of perceptions and practice. If anything, the widespread acceptance of the pathways metaphor
has contributed to a hardening of the academic/vocational divide by producing active compliance with the sorting of
students into strongly differentiated courses that provide quite different types of learning experiences. While some
students do experience strongly practical learning, the “intellectualisation” of their subjects has been strongly
resisted. And “academic” students who want to study subjects with a strong practical element are still likely to have
the suitability of their choice questioned.
Notwithstanding its early promise, we have to conclude that the hopes for the NCEA as an assessment system that provides
better support for lifelong learning are “not yet achieved”.
Rethinking assessment change
Reforming an assessment system is not just a matter of changing the structure of the assessment instruments and
procedures used, although that has understandably been the focus of the NCEA reforms to date. Ideas and assumptions
about the nature of knowledge and learning, the relative emphasis that should be given to different purposes for
assessment, and issues of power and control of assessment and learning processes, are all implicated. At present the
NCEA seems more akin to a complicated system, but it could be rethought as a complex system, where changes to all the
interconnected parts become a focus for attention. Tentative ideas for how this ongoing change process might proceed are
explored in the final section of the report.