A South Auckland school that will be forced to hold external exams for the first time says the latest changes to school assessment are "a gigantic step backwards".

Kia Aroha College in Ōtara regards exams as "a colonial system" and does not make any of its mainly Māori and Pasifika students sit them.

But principal Haley Milne said her students would be forced to sit exams under a new structure for the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) which will increase the proportion of externally assessed learning units from 30 per cent now to 50 per cent.

"I think it's a gigantic step backwards," Milne said.

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"I feel like it's returning to the dark days of School Certificate and Sixth Form Certificate, where it was really external assessments."

"There's a certain type of young people that do well in exams, and there is obviously a majority of young people that don't, that happen to be Māori and Pacific," she said.

"We should have the opportunity to choose which assessment method is the best method for our young people, rather than having a blanket rule."

At the other end of the educational spectrum, Auckland Grammar School headmaster Tim O'Connor welcomed the changes as a sign that Education Minister Chris Hipkins has listened to school principals.

Last year O'Connor said an advisory group that proposed abolishing external exams in NCEA Level 1 and awarding a quarter of the credits at Levels 2 and 3 for a project or internship was "in la-la land".

"We've been through a bit of heartache, but it's very heartening to see that a mid-way point has been reached," he said.

"From what I have seen, it's a sensible move to have external assessment at each level as a compulsory part of the qualification."

The new system aims to make NCEA more coherent by reducing the number of learning units available to around 20 credits in four "chunks" per subject, or a maximum of 100 or 120 credits for five or six subjects, at each level.

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That will reduce the marking workload for teachers and reduce the pressure of constant assessments for students. Lynfield College student Emily Gossen said she tried for 200 credits in NCEA Level 1, way more than the 80 she needed to pass.

The new system will stop students like Emily Gossen (above) trying for 200 credits in NCEA Level 1. Photo / Peter Meecham
The new system will stop students like Emily Gossen (above) trying for 200 credits in NCEA Level 1. Photo / Peter Meecham

However, the changes will also "rebalance the number of credits available for internally and externally assessed achievement standards" to a "50:50 split".

That was the intention when NCEA started in 2002, but the proportion of internally assessed credits has risen gradually over the past 17 years to 70 per cent, partly because many schools feel it is a fairer way to assess students' learning than a three-hour exam, and partly because the pass rates in internally assessed units are higher.

Secondary Principals' Association president Mike Williams welcomed the changes as "a really good pragmatic solution".

Mike Williams hopes the changes will reduce the mentality of,
Mike Williams hopes the changes will reduce the mentality of, "If it's not in the test, do I need to study it?" Photo / File

"In five years' time [after the changes are phased in fully] there definitely will be less of an emphasis on assessment all the time," he said.

"Hopefully we will reduce the, 'If it's not in the test, do I need to study it?' mentality, and focus more on the learning."

James Morris, who chairs the rival Secondary Principals' Council of the Post Primary Teachers' Association (PPTA), said lifting external assessment back to about half the learning units would improve the system's credibility and reduce teachers' marking workload.

Jack Boyle says the changes will reduce workloads for both teachers and students. Photo / File
Jack Boyle says the changes will reduce workloads for both teachers and students. Photo / File

PPTA president Jack Boyle also welcomed the likely reduced workload for both teachers and students in fewer but bigger assessments.

Thames-based youth psychologist Steve Williams said reducing the pressure of constant assessments would be good for students' mental health.

"By redefining that balance, hopefully there are times when teens can actually engage in the process of peer socialisation and maybe even having fun!" he said.

 Claire Amos believes the new system will make it harder to create new learning units spanning several traditional subjects. Photo / File
Claire Amos believes the new system will make it harder to create new learning units spanning several traditional subjects. Photo / File

But Albany Senior High School principal Claire Amos said fewer and bigger units of assessment in each subject would make it harder to create cross-subject learning units and projects enabling students to earn credits in several subjects at once..

"I feel it's a real step backwards," she said.

William Guzzo says exam stress actually stops students absorbing learning into their long-term memory. Photo / Supplied
William Guzzo says exam stress actually stops students absorbing learning into their long-term memory. Photo / Supplied

William Guzzo, who started an NCEA tutoring company after he struggled with NCEA himself because of dyspraxia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, said high-stakes tests had been "shown to reduce the long-term retention of content that is learned, mainly due to the stress of exams preventing consolidation of knowledge in memory".