When the annual ritual of external exams starts on Thursday, students at one West Auckland school look set to be much less stressed than everyone else.
For most high school students, the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) exams decide whether their years at school have been worthwhile or wasted.
A pass at Level 1 in Year 11 means they can go on to Level 2 in Year 12, Level 3 in Year 13 and then on to tertiary education or a job.
A fail at any one of these three hurdles, students are taught to feel, would be fatal.
The result is intense stress. A report in April found 72 per cent of Kiwi 15-year-olds - more than anywhere else in the 35-nation Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) - agreed that "even if I am well prepared for a test I feel very anxious".
"Too much assessment is leading to poorer mental health for students," says Maurie Abraham, principal of West Auckland's new Hobsonville Point Secondary School which is trying out a new path to NCEA nirvana.
Two years ago, Hobsonville Point decided its foundation students, who started Year 9 in 2014, would not try to get NCEA Level 1 when they reached Year 11 last year. Instead, they would go for their first NCEA certificate at Level 2 this year.
Hamilton's new Rototuna Senior High School is taking the same path, and Fairfield College will follow next year. New Education Minister Chris Hipkins signalled this week that all schools may be encouraged to follow suit in a major review of NCEA that is about to start.
"You don't have to do all three levels but the culture is that all kids do all three, so how do we encourage people to use the flexibility NCEA provides?" he asked.
The review, planned by the Education Ministry 15 years after the first NCEA exams in 2002, will also address serious worries such as evidence that many students are simply memorising model answers and emerging from school without real understanding - and even without basic literacy and numeracy.
THE FIRST problem identified in a Post Primary Teachers Association background paper on the review is over-assessment. "On average, students are still assessed each year for twice as many credits as they need to achieve that qualification," it says.
Students need 80 credits to get NCEA Level 1, but can carry over 20 credits from lower levels each year so they only need 60 credits at Level 2 to get their Level 2 certificate and 60 at Level 3 to get NCEA Level 3.
The NZ Qualifications Authority (NZQA) says students actually entered last year for averages of 117 credits at Level 1, 104 at Level 2 and 86 at Level 3. Enrolling for more credits than they need is a kind on "insurance policy" for students.
"Too much assessment is leading to poorer mental health for students. "
But it comes at a cost, because assessing for every credit takes time.
"The pig doesn't get fatter by weighing it every week, the pig gets fatter by nourishing and feeding it. You waste time with the weighing," Abraham says.
The second problem is that focusing on credits encourages students to just memorise exemplars from past exams, which are available on the NZQA website, without necessarily understanding what they are writing.
When a student noticed in June that NZQA had published identical exemplars for a history paper two years in a row, revealing that a student in the second year had just memorised the previous year's exemplar, history teacher Greg Burnard said memorising exemplars was "reasonably widespread across the country".
"It's not seen as cheating, it's just seen as being well-prepared," he said.
Third, the Tertiary Education Commission (TEC) found in 2014 that only about half of all students with NCEA Level 1, and 60 per cent with Level 2, actually had the claimed literacy and numeracy levels as measured by adult tests. Students have to have at least 10 credits in literacy and 10 in numeracy at Level 1 to get NCEA certificates for all levels, but they can get those credits from a wide range of courses which are considered to require reading, writing or maths.
Industry Training Federation chief executive Josh Williams, who discovered the TEC data last year, says it shows the NCEA literacy and numeracy criteria are "certainly too loose".
Business NZ education manager Carrie Murdoch says employers are "concerned about literacy and numeracy skills not only of school-leavers but also tertiary graduates".
Fourth, Murdoch says NCEA's flexible design lets students "grab a whole bunch of standards" to get the qualification without any coherent set of knowledge or skills.
"Vocational pathways are supposed to provide coherent programmes," she says. The pathways show which courses will help students prepare for jobs in six broad vocational groups such as primary industries, services, or manufacturing and technology.
But Murdoch says it takes "time and effort" to design coherent programmes to suit each student, and not all schools give teachers time to work with students to do that.
Fifth, separate credits for small units of work have produced a "fragmentation" of the curriculum, making it harder for students to understand how the separate elements fit together into a whole subject - and even more so, across subjects.
"Increasingly in work you need multi-disciplinary, multiple fields of knowledge to tackle particular problems," Murdoch says.
"What businesses care about are what the learners can actually do, and the attitudes and aptitudes they show."
LABOUR'S EDUCATION manifesto promised a "review of the current NCEA-related assessment load on students and teachers with a view to bringing the focus back to delivering on the vision of our internationally renowned curriculum".
Education researcher Rosemary Hipkins (Chris Hipkins' mother) and co-authors Michael Johnston and Mark Sheehan argued last year in their book NCEA in Context that teachers are already free to cut back on assessments so they can cover fewer topics but with more depth and relevance.
"Letting go of some traditional content is not easy for teachers, given the long history of thinking about a curriculum as a list of topics to be covered and then assessed," they wrote. "But the burgeoning knowledge that confronts us in today's world cannot possibly be covered in any curriculum, not even in the most sketchy of details. Coverage is not even an option any more."
They argue teachers should select topics that are relevant to their students and that "generate insights into how the world works, empower the taking of action in appropriate ways, support the development of ethical and more humane mindsets, and be likely to come up in a range of circumstances".
At Hobsonville Point, students work on projects with external businesses or community groups that often cut across several subjects.
"We combine them together so a kid who loves sport but not maths will learn measurement and statistics in their sport," Abraham says.
"Kids who love art will have to learn about the different parts of a flower so they can draw a flower."
Year 12 student Flynn Dawson says a piece of work on "a psychology debate" earned him credits in English as well as psychology.
"So it's just working smarter and not harder - which is not to say we don't work hard!" he says.
His classmate, Jalen Wilson, says the system requires students to be self-motivated, which only happens when their learning is related to their "passions".
"For two years I had friends who didn't want to learn anything, just sat in class," he says.
"But when it came to NCEA, they were building a go-kart: that was a way for them to become passionate. Now they have changed - from being a problem with no motivation, they are actually going to be able to go to a [mechanics] internship because of that go-kart they made."
Abraham says students were encouraged to get only 20 NCEA Level 1 credits in Year 11 which they could carry over to Level 2, but to make those "quality" credits. About 60 per cent of their credits were awarded with merit or excellence.
This year he says 90 to 92 per cent of the cohort, who are now in Year 12, are tracking towards achieving NCEA Level 2, with 62 or 63 per cent likely to earn merit or excellence. The school's families are rated in the richest decile, Decile 10 and these results are slightly better than last year's national deciles 8-10 average pass rate of 82 per cent, of whom 57 per cent gained merit or excellence.
Abraham says the school does not teach the NZQA exemplars; in any case many of its learning projects are unique so exemplars would not help.
The school's approach has driven away some families. The cohort of 124 students who started in Year 9 in 2014 shrank to 119 in Year 10 the next year and 111 in Year 11 last year.
Students say some left because they wanted to join sports teams at bigger, more established schools. But others left because they didn't like the NCEA policy.
"The big reason for a lot of people leaving was because they didn't trust it," Flynn Dawson says.
On the other hand, Kim Mi Yeoh switched to Hobsonville Point in Year 10 after a year at Westlake Girls' High School. "I found it really stressful at Westlake," she says.
Kim Mi loves art but found there was little time for it at Westlake, whereas at Hobsonville she has been able to combine it with English and other subjects. "Here's it's more flexible how everyone learns," she says. "Most of the time we are self-directed. We have a say in our learning and we have a voice. Back at Westlake the teachers would always tell you what to do."
Kim Mi has written an article comparing Westlake and Hobsonville-style schools to caged and free-range hens.
"I used to be a hen who was blind and stressed," she wrote. "I used to be a layer hen who had the sole purpose to simply produce eggs.
"Now that I'm free range, I've become so much more. I get to explore and engage in incredible things I never knew existed. I can confidently stretch my wings out and know that I am the happiest chook alive."