The NCEA encouraged a "minimalist approach", with many students lacking the motivation to do more than the bare minimum to pass, a report has found.
The study, commissioned by the Ministry of Education and released yesterday, revealed that some students' feedback* criticised the National Certificate of Educational Achievement as having a negative influence on the motivation to learn.
It said design flaws were a disincentive for "high achievers and all students" to want to achieve; students could avoid subjects seen as too hard, ignore parts of a course they didn't like, or not sit exams once minimum credits were achieved.
"There is evidence that the 80-credit requirement encourages a minimalist approach by students."
The report said:
* Many students found it hard to be motivated to do more than the minimum 80 credits required to pass an NCEA level.
* Many indicated there was little motivation to aim for "merit" or "excellence" when these credits carried no extra value.
* Those who did aspire to do their best said the grading system was too broad and did not properly reflect performance.
* Students perceived the system as "illogical and unfair"; they could fail a standard despite passing "merit" or "excellence" questions.
Education Minister Steve Maharey admitted there were concerns and promised to resolve them. He said the Government and the Qualifications Authority were already working to address specific concerns - the 80-credit threshold and the broadly defined grades - outlined in the report.
"These are good practical issues we have to solve, but none of this suggests that NCEA is not a good, strong system ... [The report] rather says, 'Here are some refinements you should make', and we will make them."
Mr Maharey said motivational issues were not unique to NCEA, but NCEA was in a unique position to address them. "Unlike the old system, NCEA allows us to play to a wider range of strengths and tailor solutions to individual students so they can try harder."
Schools would help the types of students - boys, pupils from lower-decile schools, and those doing lower levels of NCEA - who the report identified as not striving to do their best.
Though it was ultimately up to students to motivate themselves, methods such as effective teaching would encourage them.
He praised the report - which drew from the responses of teachers, parents and 6000 pupils from schools nationwide - for providing significant student-based research and a basis for further study.
In spite of problems, the report said schools, teachers and students generally supported NCEA, particularly its flexibility.
But the National Party's education spokesman, Bill English, said this trait of NCEA was a double-edged sword.
"The more flexibility you have, the easier it is for students to pick the easy way through. It provides more options but at the cost of motivation and real achievement for the middle-ground student, who are the majority and the ones we should be targeting.
"The system needs significant change, less flexibility and stronger standards. The Government is in denial about the weaknesses of NCEA and the students know them inside out and are exploiting them ruthlessly."
Steve Benson, senior manager of learning policy frameworks at the ministry, said more students than in the past were leaving school with higher qualifications.
No need to excel, says student
NCEA is an "unfair and unjust" system, says Anne O'Hagan, a Year 11 student from Waihi College.
The 15-year-old was so "sick of it" that she wrote a letter to the Herald last week in protest.
The problem, she said, was getting the same reward for assessments regardless of how far above the bar you were.
"You get the same amount of credits for an 'achieve' as an 'excellence', and you don't have to put much effort in to get an 'achieve'.
She said the system should give more credits for higher marks.
"The more recognition you get, the more you push yourself further. Otherwise it just keeps everyone at the same level."
She said NCEA opened more doors - her school offered subjects such as tourism and horticulture - but she would rather be under the old system of School Certificate. "That way we know how well we do."
Though NCEA did little to motivate her to excel, her parents more than made up for it.
"I'll do the best I can, otherwise I'll get in trouble with my parents."
Other quotes from the report (by unnamed students):
* "When you know you will pass anyway, why study? And after you have 80 credits there is no motivation to do better."
* "No need to try hard, no motivation to work hard. Can slack off for most of the year and still pass."
* "Higher achievers get the same amount of credits as the basic achievers - no incentive to gain higher marks."
* "I can look as good as someone who gets 100 per cent as long as I pass."
* "It encourages people to be average."
Our daughter is in Year 10 at the Auckland school which consistently tops the NCEA league tables. This school encourages students to strive for their personal best and avoids comparing pupils. She and her friends aim for excellence and see an achieved grade as a bare minimum pass – much as we saw a 50% pass in the 1970’s. With NCEA we now know that an excellence or merit pass demonstrates competence in a curriculum area rather than success in relation to the particular cohort of students who have taken the examination that year. This provides us and employers with far more insight into her learning and achievement than a scaled percentage mark can ever do. It also ensures that if students work hard and understand the work, they can achieve high grades regardless of the overall standard of students sitting in that particular year. This seems more transparent to us and encouraging of high performance.
- - - posted 10.55am July 7, 2006 by Josephine, UK
* An earlier version of this story said that two-thirds of students' feedback criticised NCEA as having a negative influence on motivation to learn. The feedback in question related to 300 comments on motivation, part of a total of 11,000.