An Auckland high-school graduate who came second to Dux despite doing what he says were "hard" academic subjects has written a passionate appeal saying subjects like art and cooking don't compare.

Filip Vachuda, who was runner-up to this year's dux at Onehunga High School, calls for adopting a common American system of weighting "hard" academic subjects, such as physics and calculus, as worth more than the dux's "soft" subjects such as media and drama.

He wrote in an article for NZME's EducationCentral website: "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, or indeed, scholarship exams and extra subjects."

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He added: "Assigning acting, cooking 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."

A former deputy chief executive of the NZ Qualifications Authority, Bali Haque, says Vachuda has revived a long-standing argument about the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA).

"The issue has always been what we used to call parity of esteem," he says.

He says many countries differentiate between academic and other subjects, but NCEA was designed as a "standards-based" system to test whether students met standards in a wide range of subjects.

"If you compare a student doing drama with a student doing physics, what are you after?" he asks.

"If you want someone who is good at drama, you will look at the standard for drama, and if you want someone who is good at physics you will look at that standard.

"The concept of aggregating them and comparing them is tempting, but it's just so problematic."

Onehunga High School principal Deidre Shea says she is sorry Vachuda feels that he was not properly recognised.

"He has achieved extremely well and we are very proud, as a school, of his magnificent achievements," she says. "Our students, staff and community celebrated the success of Filip and many other students at our recent awards ceremony."

Here is what Vachuda wrote:

In defence of academic subjects

Filip Vachuda, right, receives the Proxime Accessit award from Onehunga High School principal Deidre Shea. Photo supplied
Filip Vachuda, right, receives the Proxime Accessit award from Onehunga High School principal Deidre Shea. Photo supplied

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, or indeed, scholarship exams and extra subjects.

Our quantity and quality of attainment, all subjects being equal, were near-identical, but my minuscule credit deficit was all that mattered.

I couldn't help but wonder: why did my school not consider my more demanding curriculum?

Was it even appropriate, to begin with, saying certain courses were more rigorous than others?

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, 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 the vast majority our universities' admission cycles (excluding for engineering and certain University of Auckland courses), "university approved" subjects all have equal weight.

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 skill sets that contribute to a complete world. More "university approved" subjects enable further study in more fields.

But assigning acting, cooking 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 tests.

There will always be exceptions, but the overall trends in student achievement suggest that subject difficulty is not at all an "artificial construct" irrelevant to said 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 among 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, recognise 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 a 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" has a duty to emphasise, well, academic subjects - subjects that, by common consensus, are ones that 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 Scholarship exam was also completely ignored.

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 grade point average, but with all his credits at Level 2 - a full curriculum level lower.

This all begs another question: why is it ever appropriate to outright ignore certain student achievement, as my school did? Accomplishments beyond the needed or expected framework, though less relevant 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 realised from this (albeit non-sporting) exercise that I cannot assign my award legitimacy. The young woman who beat me was spectacular at what she did. She rightfully deserved all her prizes in drama, media, sustainability - and I must mention, as I outperformed her in English, she outperformed me in history.

But forgoing math, science and extension beyond the base curriculum in favour of less academic subjects should not add up to being declared the best, all-round, academic achiever.

There are no benchmarks in NCEA beyond achievement at your chosen level - and
we have become so reluctant to assign greater value to certain endeavours that performing an entire curriculum level above expectations won't impact one's 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.

The US model of "weighted" classes and grade point averages is determined by schools - who may very well get their calculations wrong. But instituting a similar culture in New Zealand will at least address that not all achievement is, and I stress, in the world of academics and future opportunities, created equal.

Different course choices may lead to unequal outcomes in life, but all need not be turned on its head. NCEA's sentiment towards absolute subject equality is as unrealistic as it is a heart-warming gesture, and something needs to change.

Until then, I shall advise my sister, who has just 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.

• Filip Vachuda is the runner up to this year's dux at Onehunga High School.