Dr Liz Gordon – Oh no, not more exams!


The Minister of Education has announced much awaited changes to the NCEA examination system.  New Zealand is the most examined schooling system in the world, with full suites of subject qualifications in each of the last three years of schooling.

The Minister intends to fix the terrible workloads that this causes, not by reducing the qualification burden but by shifting from internal to external assessment and thus reducing the assessment burden on teachers.

Of all the reforms possible, he has chosen the worst one.  I will debate this with anyone. I have studied assessment systems for over 30 years and I know as much as anyone about them.  So here is the truth about assessment systems in five easy lessons.

LESSON 1: End of course examinations test memory, recall and ability to swat, not knowledge or understanding.

TDB Recommends NewzEngine.com

The world has changed with the onset of the internet. People no longer need the wide recall of facts that was once the hallmark of a good education and a good exam answer.  Mr Jacob Rees-Mogg, an odious British snob politician who memorised a dictionary and delights in spouting incomprehensible words at the rest of the plebs, is an example of all that is wrong about this model.  With Mr Google, everybody can know stuff now.

LESSON 2: Written ‘by memory’ examinations are class, gender and race biased.

There is much evidence that white middle- and upper-class males excel at external examinations.  It was not until internal assessment was brought into schools that girls started out-performing boys in qualifications.  I am not making this up. The same with Māori achievement, which has risen hugely under NCEA. Reducing the multiple pathways now will affect the achievement balance of all groups.

LESSON 3:  If you want achievement across the board, you need multiple pathways.

There is more than one way to gain qualifications in a subject.  Helping disadvantaged groups gain qualifications improves their outlook and makes them look more positively to the future.  While not perfect, the mix of economic and vocational, unit standards and taught courses delivers qualifications to more New Zealanders.  The requirement for external examinations will kill this dead and levels of achievement at NCEA level 2 will decline, at the expense of more vulnerable young people.

LESSON 4: Why not drop the full suite of qualifications?

Why is it such a requirement to have full exams at each level?  It is a daft model that removes alternatives and causes huge amounts of work for teachers.  Let’s examine a wider range of things and much less often. Instead of 80 credits required at each level, what about if we make a smaller package – say 30 credits plus a ‘skills development’, ‘public service’ or ‘work experience’ module – required at each level, all of which would go towards school graduation, a final outcome that indicates a full secondary education has been completed.  This is basically the American model, but is done so much better in Canada.

Importantly, such a model would allow for multiple pathways to get to graduation, including for people who left school earlier to be able to retroactively earn their graduation by post-school programmes (this is similar to what happens now in youth training courses, which provide pathways to NCEA level 2).

Reducing the need for school examinations opens the door to so many other options.  For example, a graduate from my model may be required to participate in an internal (school, college) campaign to change some aspect of the world (selected by the class), such as reversing climate change or ending child poverty (civics education).  They may be schooled in personal communication and public speaking. What about problem-solving, to try and counter our male violence epidemic (yes, there is one) with alternative thinking? All sorts of useful opportunities might arise to make better citizens.

LESSON 5: A school graduation model would provide relief for teachers, beleaguered students and parents and offer a much more relevant education for all.

The lesson from this blog is that we examine children up to their eyeballs, drive non-academic kids out of school and grade on ‘remembered’ subject mastery rather than ability to cope in the world. School drop-out rates, over-stressed teachers, enormous rates of youth suicide, bullying epidemics, school exclusions and many other factors should ring huge alarm bells with us.

We need to change our models of schooling and a start would be to dump all those exams, whether internal or external, in favour of supporting students to build a folio of work that will support them throughout life.

I really think that the Minister needs to re-think last week’s announcements on NCEA.  The case for what he is proposing is not only week, it is positively antagonistic to goo schooling outcomes for all.  Please, Chris, go back to the drawing board and become the Minister that drives New Zealand schooling into the 21st century.


Dr Liz Gordon is a researcher and a barrister, with interests in destroying neo-liberalism in all its forms and moving towards a socially just society.  She usually blogs on justice, social welfare and education topics.



  1. Okay then, let me play devils advocate. Speaking as a person who was reading through the military history section of the library at 9. It was so easy to teach myself most things I never realized how big a difference there was until university and found that a lot of the incoming scarifies were operating at those levels. It was a shock for me because the worst of the changes didn’t happen until I was well out of school. So I worked, volunteered, spent another handful of years banging around New Zealand in a jap import. Then years later as a supervisor found university standards have fallen significantly while I was away from the educational system. And I’m laying devils advocate here.

    It was nearly a culture shock to see how much things had changed for the worse. The school I went to wasn’t a good one, it was a mediocre at best urban Auckland school/ schools that had lots of problems. But they got students to do better by following ordinary practices during the time. Splitting classes by skill levels, quickly pulling disruptive students out of class and keeping them away, posting grades on the walls and encouraging competition over them. Offering incentives and perks for perfect grades, grading harshly and not giving second chances so that the grades would in turn mean something.

    Only to find out that despite the success of those methods they’re now completely verbotten in the education profession. Administrators outright instruct teachers that they aren’t allowed to fail students. No matter what you have to give them extra chances until they pull a passing grade. Disruptive students are humored and worked around instead of dealt with. Everyone goes into the same classes slowing them down immensely as you can’t go faster than the slowest student. And the Individual Curriculum Plans, oh the Parent Teachers association. If a student so much as blinks oddly they seem to get a label then you need to do several dozen pages of extra paperwork for each one at the beginning of the year. Plus write an extra addition to lesson plans covering how you’ll tailor the lesson to deal with student’s issues. For every single student with a disruptive student in the class, and classes seem to average 10% with disruptive students in good classes in good schools.

    Lastly grading history and geography is substandard because it’s centred on Europe and no tool whatsoever given to understanding real world New Zealand.

    • Wow, very well put. You’re pointing out the obvious which is anathema to the ‘academics’.

  2. Agree with most of whats said. I hated high school but loved university. Its was an escape from a asinine system that graded people to death often on material that was utterly useless in the real word. I remember one teacher even admitting that to me whilst saying with a sigh “but its in the syllabus so you need to learn it”.

    Thankfully our child is bright but even she becomes short tempered with the “cram the duck” bullshit that seems to be the norm here and I don’t blame her. We are thinking of moving off shore partly so she can get a better, more balanced education.

  3. Fully agree with that Liz. The best thing about NCEA is the ability for such a wide level of achievement from all parts of society in a wide range of subjects. This part of NCEA has always seemed like a breath of fresh air to me. To go back to the old external exams is to consign to the trash heap a huge number of those that are now able to exhibit their knowledge in more varied ways. The best part of the old system was the time that was available to teach which allowed a much broader look with many side topics with regard to any topic. Looks like now we are heading to the worst part of both systems. Who would of thought from a Labour Green coalition? But Hipkins was always to the right I guess. But why is nobody else causing a fight? Hopefully teachers add this to the list of their grievances

  4. Agreed Liz, sustained lifelong learning exploring the why and how is much more beneficial to students than regurgitative fact testing (the what). Imagine the value to society if everyone could learn, understand and earn credit for a subject that interested them, and then apply the knowledge for the good of themselves and others. Formal learning depends on teaching being fair, open, accessible, engaging, relevant, measurable and successful. A grounding in a subject is important but external testing must also depend on learner, how we learn, topic, level, learning materials, delivery and testing method, time available and so on.
    The last paper I took was an abomination: Brief, jumbled and incomplete course notes; poor course support; and an online external testing portal that just didn’t work. Once I fell behind catching up was impossible. And that was that, the road to a particular career path was shut down (a tertiary qualification which could have lead to sustained employment and professional advancement).

  5. I hear attacks on our system of schooling for it being based on, and still largely resembling, England 1800s factory models.

    I smile when I hear the same critics calling for getting rid of the airy-fairy, fancy-dancy stuff, making kids sit in rows and shut up and listen to the teacher then do an end of year test to see what they’ve learned.

  6. Arggh. Please ignore 2 spelling errors in final paragraph. I must proof read more. I must proof read more. I must……

  7. “The best thing about NCEA is the ability for such a wide level of achievement from all parts of society in a wide range of subjects.”

    This is a load of tosh.

    I lecture in engineering and we are trying to increase our domestic student intake, particularly Maori and Pasifika.

    Problem is many are lacking the pre-requisite skills in maths and physics, and what happens is they end up having to pay for an additional semester of foundation studies in maths and physics, which they should have got at school.

    ‘Underprivileged’ kids then end up shouldering the burden of another year of student loans just to get them up to speed and in the door, compared to ‘privileged’ kids who got the right guidance on what subjects to do at school.

    The fact is allowing kids to simply make up their own minds on what they want to do is inherently dangerous. They don’t have the maturity or the knowledge to know what is best for them

    What’s the point in getting a whole lot of credits in subjects that are not going to lead one to jobs or to tertiary or trades study? That is disadvantaging the very people we are supposed to help.

    As for exams they are not a perfect instrument of assessment, but they do by and large act as a good sorting mechanism. The reason is this. They are an efficient predictor of ability. To say they are tests of just memorization is ridiculous. Most exams, in the physical sciences at least, require the solving of complex problems under strict time constraints. That does test for something more than simply regurgitation.

    One can see the effectiveness of exams, simply by comparing the performance of students on their uncontrolled assessments (i.e assignments and projects) with their performance on controlled assessments (i.e. tests and exams). There is an almost perfect correlation between them. That is to say, students who do well on exams and tests, will tend to do well on assignments and projects, and vice versa.

    That means that exams and tests, will by and large tell you with some level of confidence, how well the student has assimilated the taught material and how well he or she would do on an actual project that tests real life knowledge.

    • Mark, as someone who struggled through school and indeed school certificate end of year exams, I totally agree. Why? Because it was not that I was less intelligent, it was that I really never devoted myself to study or to retain information. My understanding is that if I was educated under the NCEA system I would have gained 1,2 and 3 levels. I, like many, have learnt more outside of the school curriculum and confines of the education parameters. Real life experience has taught me more than the education system could ever do. My fear is that many under NCEA will leave secondary school ” qualified” by default.

    • What’s the point in getting a whole lot of credits in subjects that are not going to lead one to jobs or to tertiary or trades study?

      Funny that one of ours amongst a heavy academic load did an ‘out of left field’ art subject to the highest school level. It didn’t lead to a job but the discipline required, learned and practised and the creativity and challenges experienced certainly helped with sciences at the very highest tertiary level.

  8. Imagine the value to society if everyone could learn, understand and earn credit for a subject that interested them

    And that is the problem, attitudes like these.

    We often have to do things in life we do not particularly enjoy. We all have to learn basic arithmetic, basic numeracy and literacy, otherwise we will not get very far in life, regardless our field of endeavour.

    By telling kids that they should just do what they are ‘interested’ in is doing them a complete and utter disservice, and setting them up for failure when they get out in the real world.

    • That’s what the army is for, good sir. Let’s volunteer the next round of boys and girls for a go at Germans, wha? Might make it a few more metres this time.

    • Some are perhaps rather interested in masturbation, at a particular age, which may override all other ‘interests’.

      • hahahahahahahaha…how on earth did you know my primary interest in those first few years after the onset of puberty?

  9. How the heck does this government, quite correctly, say that both Tomorrow’s Schools and the National Standards aren’t working, and at the same time get what needs to be done to fix things so wrong? It wants to keep the worst of TS and NS and ditch the things that work, while reintroducing the things that don’t work and which were the reasons TS and then NS were introduced in the first place. You just can’t get any dumber than that.

  10. I would not underestimate the need to be able to develop good memory and analytical skills in the age of the internet.

    I come across so many younger persons who cannot add up the simplest sets of numbers on their own, without the help of a calculator, and I also come across so many, who cannot do any other intelligent task, due to lack of deeper understanding and analytical skills, because they all can get info at the touch of a button or at the tap on a screen.

    Once the internet is down, once there may be a prolonged power outage, they will be totally incapable of doing anything much, as their gadgets and modern electronic tools are not able to be operated.

    So I am in favour of some exams, even though they may appear a bit outdated.

  11. Exams are for Business NZ to sort who they employ. A class ridden system.

    So all kids go through the competitive stress for what.

    It has noting to do with education and growth of young minds.

  12. A case of making important what you measure (ability to regurgitate facts) because we can’t measure what’s important (character, integrity, ability, skill, intelligence…)?

    • What a fucked up comment.

      So what the fuck do we do then. Just let anyone become a doctor, a surgeon? No testing or exams required?

      Would you like to be operated on someone who has not been credentialed through a rigorous series of assessments, both theoretical and practical?

      • I prefer to think that it’s mostly parents not wanting to know that their little precious ain’t cut out for higher education and teachers not wanting to know that there well cradled teaching plans are trash.

        Some times a kid just wants the time of a dedicated individual with the time and patience to show them how to make money properly.

  13. Ok let’s gets this straight by a person currently sitting NCEA Level 3. The NCEA system is a great system that many countries aspire to, and although it was individual flaws in each subject e.g. Too much human geography in comparison to physical geography, it is overall a good, well balanced system. NCEA has been designed to simulate the real world, whilst still ensuring that there is a curriculum in place to not only set kids up for Uni, but also for outside of New Zealand. This is something that the article fails to address: New Zealand can’t arbitrarily change the education system and hope that the world just conforms. It doesn’t matter how much ‘real world’ experience a student gets through schooling, that isn’t going to get then into Harvard, is it? This is also where NCEA comes into it’s own. I will explain this using my own experience. Through internals, particularly in literacy based subjects (in my case, Geography), students learn to write real world reports that are based on their own research, on a topic they want to do, to be presented in any format. For example, the subject of Desertification interested me, so I am now writing a report on it’s causes and impacts on people. We are given a due date and a framework to get an idea of how to do the internal, however it is mostly down to us. We have to manage time, be creative, research efficiently and effectively, using citations and without plagiarism. That adequately sets students up for similar style work in Uni and in real life. In externals, important skills in the physical sciences and maths are taught, without memorization being involved (we don’t have to memorize equations, the periodic table or constants that would otherwise be readily available). As for literacy subjects, barely any memorization of quotes, facts and figured are needed, with many exams being resource based, teaching students how to critically analyze and write on an unknown subject, topic or text. Art subjects are also very helpful for me future: Large portfolios made throughout the year in Art, composing\writing and organizing and performing in dance, music and drama. These tests and skills often challenge any student, as it is up to the students how much they learn, what they learn and where they apply their knowledge. For students looking at excelling academically in New Zealand and internationally, the scholarship exams have been made. Many people criticize NCEA for being too focused on rote learning, however for those students who excel, the scholarship exams push students to think critically in New and unknown situations, or requiring large and comprehensive reports or works of art. For anyone saying NCEA needs to change, well hear it from someone currently in the system. It is good! Students complain about school but I’m reality, NCEA is one of the best school systems, as it encourages creativity and critical skills into one system. Maybe the only thing NCEA needs is something like the German Praktikum (I take German and went to Germany, so experienced this. It is like work experience, but more comprehensive). This would make NCEA a step up, as it will encourage students to pursue different careers and see their learning actually be applied in a real context.

    • Well then let me speak up for Māori kids in School. It is unwise to set standards that is above the lowest socio economic standings of students who’s only relation to educations is being coerced by parents and by the state, some times forcibly. For these students higher academic achievements are lower than 1 in 5 than than they are closer to 1 in 5 achieving a degree. That is an example of students who receive empty dinner plates as punishment for skipping school.

      For half of all lower socio economic children or about 200-300,000 will be persistent beneficiaries and the current system of education isn’t just failing them. They don’t even know how to communicate with these students. The go to tool of coercion of the teacher is of course detention. For kids who receive extra punishment for skipping school this is a holiday for them as they don’t have to tell parents and then there path of lies is set in concrete.

      That the education system works well for the top half of students is just a matter of course. Any old geriatric sitting in the Ministry of Education can design a system that works resembley well for for a nations top half of gifted students. It’s the bottom half that’s requires legitimate genius and care, attention and focus. That education reforms over the past 40 years have not adversely effected students scores of New Zealand’s top students should indicate that they are able to accept change if the change is properly managed. For the bottom half, change will be as rewarding as a home cooked meal.

      In the public life of parliament we can not subsidies every workers education and careers. Why would we. Subsidising the education of the disadvantaged would yeild far greater results than subsidising the top tier students.

Comments are closed.