Views extremely mixed on value of external examinations, writes Simon Collins. Data by Keith Ng.

At Kia Aroha College in Ōtara, no one sat external exams this year.

"We don't do exams," says principal Haley Milne.

"We don't want to put our young people in the gambling situation of an exam, where people's lives can fall apart in one day."

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Her mother Dr Ann Milne, who was the principal for 22 years until 2016, says the college aims to develop young people who can think for themselves rather than just recite rote learning.

"Exams are a colonial system," she declares. "Exams test your memory and that's all. They don't actually help you to apply that learning in any way."

Kia Aroha College is at one extreme. At the other extreme, there are still schools such as Auckland Grammar where external exams are required in almost every subject except for practical ones such as art and physical education.

Papers with external exams have dropped from 32 per cent in 2008 to 26 per cent in 2017 of all assessments for Level 1 of the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA).

At Level 2 externals have declined from 28 per cent to 21 per cent. And at Level 3 they have plunged from 37 per cent of all assessments in 2008 to 24 per cent last year.

Combined with much higher rates of achievement, merit and excellence in internally assessed papers, the Ministry of Education sees the trend as "a risk to NCEA's credibility and robustness".

Research on NCEA results for every secondary school by New Zealand Herald data analyst Keith Ng has also found that, since 2008:

• Achievement gaps between girls and boys, between rich and poor, and between ethnic groups, have narrowed at all three levels of NCEA.

• Yet the gaps have persisted, and in some cases widened, for University Entrance.

• Achievement gaps between single-sex and coeducational schools have also narrowed in NCEA, but for University Entrance higher achievement rates in single-sex schools have not budged at all for girls and have become even more extreme for boys.

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Education Ministry warns: NCEA credibility at risk

NCEA is being reviewed by a ministerial advisory group which is holding a "co-design lab" with education, business and community groups at Wellington's Westpac Stadium this coming week.

A discussion document issued by the group in May suggested requiring only internal literacy and numeracy assessments and a project chosen by each student at Level 1, and research- or trades-based "pathway" projects making up a quarter of the credits at Levels 2 and 3.

External or internal?

"All our courses have to be externals," says Auckland Grammar headmaster Tim O'Connor. Photo / Jason Oxenham

Auckland Grammar School headmaster Tim O'Connor is so opposed to the group's proposals that he has taken his school out of NCEA Level 1 completely from next year, and has developed an alternative system that will still include exams.

Most Grammar students in their last two school years now sit Cambridge exams, which are run not only outside the school but outside the country.

Students will also still be able to opt into NCEA Levels 2 and 3 - but, in most subjects, only courses which include an external exam.

"All our courses have to have externals," says O'Connor.

"The difference is we are not killing ours [students] with kindness. We are saying we are preparing you for what is to come in an academic environment where you should be assessed in a variety of ways and external exams are part of that.

"You enter an external exam to be able to show the examiner not only the knowledge you have acquired and retained, but that you can then articulate that in a new manner given the impromptu question you have been presented with.

"That is a skill which requires you to have stored quite a lot of fundamental knowledge into your long-term memory."

Takerei Rollo feels prepared for Otago University next year because he has got used to external exams at Auckland Grammar. Photo / Greg Bowker
Takerei Rollo feels prepared for Otago University next year because he has got used to external exams at Auckland Grammar. Photo / Greg Bowker

Takerei Rollo, who has just completed his NCEA Level 3 exams, admits that his first external exams in Year 11 were "very stressful", but he feels less stress now "because I'm used to it".

An older student who started university this year told him he was grateful for Grammar's approach when he saw other first-year university students crying and vomiting in exams "because they were just not used to it".

Kia Aroha College student Foloiola Finau has achieved NCEA Level 3 without sitting any external exams. Photo / Greg Bowker
Kia Aroha College student Foloiola Finau has achieved NCEA Level 3 without sitting any external exams. Photo / Greg Bowker

But at Kia Aroha College Foloiola Finau, who is also just completing Year 13, is confident that she will cope when she studies hospitality at tertiary level, even without having sat any external exams.

"It doesn't mean that we don't have exams [internally]," she says.

She was part of a group which spent much of this year doing a research project on racism and poverty in Ōtara, which they presented to a conference this week.

"This group has helped us to be confident in who we are and believing we can succeed," she says.

Jeremy Baker:
Jeremy Baker: "We have learned that we have to understand where people are coming from." Photo / File

Jeremy Baker, a former Industry Training Federation director who chairs the NCEA ministerial advisory group, says the group has heard a message from public submissions that people "don't like being told they have to do projects" instead of exams.

"People immediately said, 'Don't tell us we have to do a project,'" he says.

"Okay, that's interesting. We have learned that we have to understand where people are coming from.

"That is the debate - whether we need to require people to do things, or whether we can achieve the same outcome perhaps without getting people's backs up."

Closing the gaps?

Most achievement gaps in NCEA have narrowed dramatically since 2011 when the former National Government set a target of 85 per cent of 18-year-olds achieving NCEA Level 2 by 2017.

The target was achieved to within a decimal point, lifting the number of 18-year-olds with Level 2 from 74.3 per cent in 2011 to 84.9 per cent last year.

Our school-by-school analysis shows that schools in the richest communities (deciles 8-10) already had a median Level 2 achievement rate of 82 per cent of their Year 12 students back in 2008 so they had only limited scope to improve, lifting their median to 90 per cent in 2017.

Schools in the middling deciles 4-7 lifted their median pass rate from 70 per cent in 2008 to 84 per cent last year. The most dramatic gains were in the poorest three deciles, where the median pass rate soared from 57 per cent to 81 per cent.

Within that group, the median Māori Level 2 pass rate jumped from 50 per cent to 78 per cent and the median Pasifika pass rate almost doubled, from 42 per cent to 80 per cent.

The median pass rate in state schools rose by 15 points for girls, to 85 per cent, and by 18 points for boys, to 80 per cent.

At decile 1 Kia Aroha College, 88 per cent of Year 12 students achieved Level 2 last year, entirely by internal assessment.

It's difficult to compare with Auckland Grammar (decile 9) because only 40 per cent of Grammar's Year 12 students entered NCEA last year. Associate Headmaster Damien Watson says most able students are steered towards Cambridge.

"The students we think will struggle with Cambridge we point towards NCEA, and then we have quite a large group in the middle who have a choice as to which pathway they think is going to work better for them," he says.

In Grammar's Year 12 last year, only 39 per cent of European students and 37 per cent of Asians, but 83 per cent of Māori and 88 per cent of Pasifika students, entered NCEA.

Takerei Rollo was one of 83 per cent of Auckland Grammar's Māori students in Year 12 who sat NCEA last year. Photo / Greg Bowker
Takerei Rollo was one of 83 per cent of Auckland Grammar's Māori students in Year 12 who sat NCEA last year. Photo / Greg Bowker

Counting only those who entered NCEA in Year 12, last year's Level 2 achievement rates were 81 per cent at Grammar and an extraordinary 97 per cent at Kia Aroha.

However, these dramatic gains for boys, poorer and Māori/Pasifika students were achieved by taking advantage of NCEA's vast range of 9360 available courses, ranging from "Demonstrate understanding of atomic and nuclear physics" to "Experience day tramps".

The story is quite different for University Entrance (UE), which is awarded to students who achieve at least 14 NCEA Level 3 credits in at least three out of a much narrower range of traditional academic subjects, and have good literacy and numeracy. These requirements were tightened in 2013 after universities expressed concern about students' literacy and numeracy.

Schools in the richest three deciles still managed a small lift in their UE achievement rates from a median of 66 per cent of their Year 13 students in 2008 to 69 per cent last year.

But the median achievement rates actually dropped 3 points to 45 per cent in the middle deciles, and slipped 1 point to a miserable 27 per cent in the poorest deciles.

Kia Aroha College students Maroha Tupe, Daniel Hopoate, Foloiola Finau, Adrienne Fakalava, Sesoni Finau and Mahina Tupe have researched racism and poverty in Ōtara. Photo / Greg Bowker
Kia Aroha College students Maroha Tupe, Daniel Hopoate, Foloiola Finau, Adrienne Fakalava, Sesoni Finau and Mahina Tupe have researched racism and poverty in Ōtara. Photo / Greg Bowker

At Kia Aroha College, 35 per cent of Year 13 students last year achieved UE. Only 78 per cent even tried for Level 3, and 44 per cent of those got UE.

At Auckland Grammar, 36 per cent of Year 13 students entered for Level 3, and 66 per cent of those achieved UE (24 per cent of the whole Year 13 roll).

Single-sex or co-ed?

Just over a quarter of students leaving school last year attended single-sex schools - 26 per cent of boys and 27 per cent of girls.

A majority of the single-sex schools are church or private schools - 31 out of 54 boys' schools and 38 out of 64 girls' schools. That means most charge fees, so they draw mainly from richer families, so their median NCEA achievement rates have always been higher than in coeducational schools.

Co-ed schools have almost closed that gap at all three levels of NCEA since 2008.

For Year 12 girls, for example, Level 2 achievement has leapt by 15 percentage points to 86 per cent in co-ed schools, almost catching up with single-sex girls' schools that have gained only 4 points to 91 per cent.

For Year 12 boys, the Level 2 achievement rate has gone up 18 points in co-ed schools to 80 per cent, compared with a rise of 13 points to 86 per cent in single-sex boys' schools.

But again the picture is different for University Entrance.

For girls, the UE achievement rate has risen by the same 3 percentage points in both school types - reaching 76 per cent of the Year 13 roll in all-girls schools, but still only 53 per cent of girls in co-ed schools.

Boys-only schools have lifted their UE pass rate by 4 points to 58 per cent of their Year 13 rolls (an artificially low figure considering schools such as Auckland Grammar that mainly use Cambridge exams). But the proportion of Year 13 boys in co-ed schools achieving UE is still exactly the same as in 2008 - a pitiful 36 per cent.

A study by Dr Michael Johnston of Victoria University for the Association of Boys' Schools, published in September, concluded that there appeared to be an "unequivocal" advantage for boys at all-boys schools, even after allowing for income and ethnic differences.

However, a 2014 study by the NZ Council for Educational Research noted that some co-ed schools achieved higher NCEA and UE rates than all single-sex boys' schools in the same decile group, proving that any single-sex advantage is not immutable.