Is NCEA failing our children? The question raised by a new report on the senior school examination system could hardly be more important. The authors, a think tank called the NZ Initiative, are by no means the first to be troubled by our pupils' declining performance against those of comparable countries in subjects such as maths, science and even reading.

Yet on an individual level, NCEA's advocates can say, it is not failing our pupils. It is giving most of them due recognition for what they can do. If that means outdoor exercise skills are capable of earning as many credits as academic physics, what is the harm in that? Everyone can see what the credit is for.

The report's real concern is that NCEA's "easy" options are dragging down our national standards in the subjects that matter most, such as reading, maths and science. It wants to see all students doing a core curriculum of those subjects in the senior levels as well as the options more suited to their interests and ability.

That would be a substantial departure from the philosophy of NCEA, putting non-academic students on a path to failure in their final years at school. That fate would be made more likely by other reforms the think tank proposes, replacing internal assessment with external exams in these subjects and making the exam questions unpredictable.


For whose benefit? The international rankings in reading, maths and the rest to do not matter in themselves. They matter as a way of ensuring young New Zealanders are being educated to a standard that bears comparison with the best in the world. For those who need a high standard of literacy and numeracy or a grounding in the sciences, NCEA might not be serving them well.

That matters.

It is reason enough to review the system and be prepared to contemplate a "two-tier" system of school credentials — a more rigorous external examination system for those heading to university and professional careers, and retaining NCEA's flexibility and predictability for those who need to be encouraged to reach their potential in other directions.

All should have acquired employable levels of literacy and numeracy before they reach even level 1 NCEA. The system has been operating for long enough now to be due for a thorough review. As teachers so often write in their reports, there is room for improvement.