Students who broke down in tears during a maths exam that has been deemed too difficult should have been able to answer the questions, two experts say, laying the blame on teachers for failing to properly prepare their students for the exam.

Students and schools are up in arms about a Year 11 NCEA Level One maths exam, which saw some pupils break down crying because they found it so difficult, and prompted complaints to the exam body.

Students took the Maths Common Assessment Task (MCat) exam, set by the New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA), last week.

The exam required the first-year seniors to apply algebraic procedures in solving problems, and was worth four credits.

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Principals, teachers and school bodies have questioned NZQA over the exam, writing to the testing agency to complain about the level of difficulty, which some claimed was two curriculum levels too high, and involved new components not seen in previous papers.

However, two Auckland University of Technology professors have this morning countered that, saying the exam was of a similar standard to previous years.

Associate professor of mathematics, Sergiy Klymchuk, said the test questions "were good".

"They emphasised thinking rather than memorisation learning," he said.

"The questions focused on conceptual understanding - not just the ability to perform standard procedures and techniques."

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However, he acknowledged the tasks could have caused problems to pupils who had not been taught how to answer those types of questions.

"They were probably hard for students who were taught using only standard procedural questions in their class, which means they wouldn't have expected or been prepared for this style of question that require good knowledge of the concepts," Klymchuk said.

"This style of questioning is good preparation for tertiary study and should always be an integral part of the maths curriculum."

His colleague, associate professor of education Andy Begg, agreed, saying if students had been taught well the questions would not have been a problem.

"The examination questions are of a similar standard as those attempted by New Zealand children in school certificate examinations for many years; if the Year 11 students have been well taught they should have no problems," he said.

"If, on the other hand, because of the Government's emphasis on numeracy, teachers have not covered basic algebra, then students will obviously have difficulty."

The test had "only examined the core algebraic ideas that most well-taught Year 11 students should be able to complete successfully", he said.

The comments will not sit well with principals and teachers, who yesterday pointed the finger at the exam body, and said it was not a matter of teachers failing to properly prepare their students.

The Greater Wellington Secondary School Principals' Association and the Secondary Principals' Association indicated they had complained about the level of difficulty of the exam.

Maths teacher Jake Wills said the test was "extremely difficult".

"The test was set with a few questions in there that I wouldn't expect until the students were a whole year older, at Level Two, and the wording in the questions was really difficult for the students to understand, particularly for our students who are really capable at maths but where English is a second language," he told NZ Herald Focus.

Such an exam had the potential to deter students from taking on maths at higher levels, he said, and also leave students feeling "completely put off" about sitting the rest of their NCEA exams in November.

Wills said he wanted to see NZQA "acknowledge that there was a problem".

"Most of the feedback I've seen so far from them has said that they're looking at it and that they're going to try to scale the marking scheme. However, for a lot of students they've gone into that paper, they've looked at it and gone, 'this doesn't look anything like what I've done in the past', so they haven't written anything on the paper.

"And you can scale the mark scheme all you want but you're not going to get the right students actually passing the exam because some of these capable students have written nothing, and you can't scale nothing to a mark."

The exam set minds boggling yesterday as people attempted to answer the difficult questions themselves.

And today a Herald online poll asked whether the students should be allowed to re-sit the exam. Of the nearly 8000 respondents, 49 per cent said yes, 42 per cent said no, and 9 per cent didn't know.

An NZQA spokeswoman today said the authority's stance on the exam had not changed, and it would not be offering a re-sit option for students.

NZQA said the exam was developed by an experienced team with expert knowledge of mathematics assessment, and the paper was also reviewed by several secondary school teachers.

Students who took the test

Devonport students Maia Brown and Barnaby Watts were both upset after sitting the controversial NCEA maths exam. Photo / Dean Purcell
Devonport students Maia Brown and Barnaby Watts were both upset after sitting the controversial NCEA maths exam. Photo / Dean Purcell

Takapuna Grammar student Maia Brown said she could hear other students crying in the exam hall as they took the test.

The 15-year-old, who is in an accelerated maths class and usually gets merit and excellence results, said she did five mock exams before the test, but when she read the first question on the official test she knew she was "doomed".

"Most of it was things I hadn't seen, things we hadn't been taught," she said.

Many of the questions were vaguely worded as well.

She was able to answer some achieved-level questions but "apart from that it was complete chaos".

"I felt really put out. I put so much effort into it and it seemed like all for nothing."

Classmate Barnaby Watts, 15, said he'd done "a decent amount of study" for the test but felt most of the questions "weren't really aligned with what we'd been taught".

He left the exam feeling like he had failed.