A new streamlined high-school assessment system, due to be unveiled today, is expected to drastically reduce the number of bits of learning being assessed.

The major shake-up of the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) will reverse the proliferation of more than 9300 "standards", or units of learning, that have been approved since NCEA started in 2002.

Many standards, which can be worth as little as 2 or 3 credits towards the 80 credits required for each level of NCEA, will be brought back together into larger blocks of learning for each subject - a step back towards the more rigid subject-based curriculum that existed before NCEA.

There may also be more subject requirements to ensure that students get a broad education, rather than being able to pass NCEA with courses of dubious value such as "experiencing day tramps ".

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The changes, to be announced by Education Minister Chris Hipkins at Mana College in Porirua this morning, come after a year-long consultation process.

As with other recent Government decisions such as walking away from a capital gains tax, the NCEA changes will be much less radical than proposed by an advisory group led by former Industry Training Federation director Jeremy Baker last May.

NCEA will change to stop what Lynfield College student Michael Howell (above) describes as a system where it's
NCEA will change to stop what Lynfield College student Michael Howell (above) describes as a system where it's "easy to not really learn the content but just learn the test." Photo / Peter Meecham

The Government has abandoned the group's proposal to replace Level 1 of NCEA with 20 credits for literacy and numeracy and 20 credits for a project chosen by each student.

"The idea of replacing Level 1 with a compulsory project, that has certainly not been adopted," Hipkins told the Herald.

Project-based learning will still be an option, already used by some schools such as Hobsonville Point Secondary, but will not be required.

The group's proposal to require at least 20 of the 80 credits for each of Levels 2 and 3 to come from "pathways opportunities" such as projects or internships has been kicked for touch after a separate professional advisory group led by former Wellington College headmaster Roger Moses rejected it.

Asked about that proposal, Hipkins said: "What the advisory groups both came back on was that they thought that more work needed to be done to ensure that kids were getting a breadth of curriculum through all three levels of the qualification."

Hipkins has taken care to consult Opposition parties through the reform debate to minimise disruption to students, and said he had received "affirming feedback" from National Party education spokeswoman Nikki Kaye which indicated "a degree of political consensus".

"They have said they are supportive of the direction of travel but have said there are a couple of issues that we want to see addressed as the implementation goes forward," he said. "The issues they have discussed, I agree with."

Both sides of politics recognise that getting NCEA credits has come to dominate students' minds in their last three years of school, at the expense of actual learning.

Chris Hipkins has abandoned a proposal to replace NCEA Level 1 with just literacy and numeracy requirements and a project. Photo / File
Chris Hipkins has abandoned a proposal to replace NCEA Level 1 with just literacy and numeracy requirements and a project. Photo / File

Lynfield College Year 13 student Michael Howell said many students only wanted to get "a number" so they could get a job.

"All the specifications are available, so it's very easy to not really learn the content but just learn the test," he said.

"This morning [Friday] I didn't learn any of the content but I sat the [chemistry] assessment. The assessment was for 3 credits.

"The only question they could ask was going to be the exact same question [specified for the standard], with some little minor changes, so if you can memorise a previous answer you can get the grade that you want."

Emily Gossen says the current NCEA system encouraged
Emily Gossen says the current NCEA system encouraged "quantity" of credits rather than "quality" of learning. Photo / Peter Meecham

Classmate Emily Gossen said she did assessments for 200 credits in Level 1 even though she only needed 80 because the goal was to maximise credits.

"It's more of a quantity than a quality approach," she said. "In exams I feel like it's about rote learning, it's not as much about critical thinking as it is just getting the grades and the bombardment of assessments."

Year 13 students from Lynfield College talk about NCEA.

Emily suggested what the Government is believed to have adopted - reducing the number of small units of learning.

"Rather than a focus on little chunks of a subject, you turn it into assessments focusing on the subject more holistically, with less assessments but a greater quality of thinking in those assessments," she said.

Hipkins is also expected to announce that the May 30 Budget will include extra funds to allow the current $76 NCEA entry fees to be scrapped.

He said changes would be phased in over several years. Committees will need to work in each subject to put small bits of learning together into bigger units.

Nikki Kaye has offered support for the professional advisory group's final proposals with
Nikki Kaye has offered support for the professional advisory group's final proposals with "a couple of tweaks". Photo / File

Kaye said she had written to Hipkins saying the National Party supported the final report of Hipkins' professional advisory group with "a couple of tweaks" related to the subject requirements and a "soft cap" on the number of credits students can enrol for each year.

"I'm quite happy to reduce the number of credits if you are strengthening particular standards," she said. "But there are some kids that want to have huge challenges and I don't support the idea that we stop them from doing that."