Are end-of-year exams becoming an option only for the elite?

Data shows students at underprivileged high schools are less likely to sit exams than those from wealthy families - with entry rates for the poorest pupils almost half those of the richest.

Instead low-decile students are more likely to enter internal assessments, sometimes gaining their National Certificate in Educational Qualification (NCEA) without ever sitting a traditional three-hour test at all.

The English exam no one wants to do
Kia Aroha College - the school with no exams


Some educators say the statistics show evidence of schools using the qualification to suit their students' needs, however others believe it raises questions about what's on offer for less privileged pupils.

"One thing about a qualification system, it should be that no matter what your school or background you've got the opportunity to achieve," said Secondary Principals' Association President Sandy Pasley.

"I think exams are part of that. I think they are valuable, particularly if students are going on to tertiary study."

NCEA data showed in the last four years, the proportion of students sitting the "external" assessments compared to taking internal assessments has dropped across the board.

Low-decile, Maori and Pasifika were less likely to sit exams compared to their high-decile, Pakeha or Asian peers. For example, in 2015, 20 per cent of NCEA entries at decile 1 came from external assessments, while at decile 10, 37 per cent of entries were external.

The lowest entry rate was for Maori at decile 1, where just 10 per cent of entries came from exams.

The data, obtained by the Herald under the Official Information Act, also showed that low-decile Maori and Pasifika students were less likely to pass exams, or to gain "Merit" or "Excellence" grades. This means a less competitive grade on application to limited-entry university courses, such as medicine, or engineering.

The disparities can be illustrated by subjects like dance, one of the few classes taken by similar numbers of high-decile Pakeha students and low-decile Maori and Pasifika students.

Data showed that of 550 decile 10 Pakeha entries, 100 were in externals. More than 90 per cent passed, 15 per cent with Excellence. Meanwhile, of 630 Pasifika decile 1 entries at Level 2, only 13 were in externals. Just 30 per cent passed, none with Excellence.

Educators said there were a number of reasons students at lower deciles had lower exam uptake - including the fact students at those schools were less likely to take subjects that included exams in the first place - whether that be physical education or art; or more vocational subjects like hospitality.

Internal assessments were also considered more well-suited to students with lower literacy and numeracy, as teachers could "scaffold" students into the assessment, allowing them to sit it only when they were ready, and re sit it if appropriate.

In contrast, exams were more unpredictable. With lower pass rates, they could be seen as a risky choice for low decile students who didn't sit as many standards in each subject, and therefore were more reliant on passing every single one to get their NCEA.

"That's the difference," said New Zealand Association of Mathematics Teachers president Gillian Frankcom-Burgess.

"High-decile schools will do the whole lot of standards, whereas at low deciles teachers will restrict the number they sit, which allows to students concentrate on things they're going to cope with."

At many schools it was now common for students to act "strategically" - studying for three exam papers but only choosing to do the one or two they think they would be best at, particularly if they weren't confident in a subject.

Chris Duggan, president of the New Zealand Association of Science Educators, said while that was good for some students, it could also cause problems later - particularly if schools were "teaching to the test".

"The main issue is for students going to university - if they're only taught part of the course they're going to struggle."

Green Party education spokeswoman Catherine Delahunty said in addition to the effects of poverty, the data showed the impact of a Pakeha education system.

"We need to ask, do English medium schools have the skills they need to support Maori and Pasifika kids?" she said.

"I think we have built a system that doesn't meet their needs. I think a lot of the time we are just doing what's most convenient for the rest of us."

The New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA) said it wanted all students, regardless of their ethnicity or socioeconomic status to reach their full potential.

NCEA contains a variety of standards per subject, which are either assessed internally (in class) or externally (by exam). Each standard has a certain number of credits. Students need 80 credits to pass each level of NCEA.

A valued tradition

Saskia Whiston,16, (left) and Hannah Bernasconi, 16, don't necessarily
Saskia Whiston,16, (left) and Hannah Bernasconi, 16, don't necessarily "like" exams but still think they're worthwhile for their future. Photo/Brett Phibbs

Through the double doors of the auditorium at Remuera's Baradene College is a scene unchanged in hundreds of years - students, working silently at wooden desks to complete an exam.

It's a ritual valued highly at the Catholic girls' school, even in an age where more and more assessments are sat in the classroom.

Principal Sandy Pasley, also the head of the Secondary Principals' Association, believes exams help prepare students not only for university but for life.

"It's important students are exposed to pressure, to learn to cope, and to be resilient early on," she said.

"Some schools might argue that at least students are getting a qualification, and not all want to go on [to university] but I still think there should be an exam element to NCEA. I think if you've got to know a subject well enough to do an exam in it you have to do it very well. And not necessarily only know it, sometimes it's about applying knowledge."

Head of the school's English Faculty Sarah Molloy would agree. They constantly remind the students that exams are important to attaining a "Merit" or "Excellence" endorsement - at least one external is required in most subjects - and talk methodically with them how to get there.

"We really value it. It's important to have that expectation for every single child," she said.

In the past few years, the school has even seen an uptake in students wanting to take the English courses that require exams - so much so they've designed a Level-3 Shakespeare course to cater for students who want to be tested at a higher level.

"We've got a big reading culture here. The students know it's important but also they like it. They do it for the joy," Molloy said.

Year 12 students Hannah Bernasconi and Saskia Whiston were both planning to sit three exam papers for English at the end of the year.

"I wouldn't say I like exams, but they're good for pushing yourself," Hannah said. "It's down to you, you have to make yourself study. It's good preparation because you're not going to have teachers push you at university."

Saskia said she felt exams were better for learning long term. "With internals I just do them and forget."

Molloy said the school still valued internal assessments, but exams offered something different.

"It's a level playing field, under the same conditions. It's a snapshot of talent and ability."