NCEA - Considering the 'Big Opportunities'

These recent months have seen a number of groups start putting their stake in the ground around the NCEA Review. It has been interesting seeing people reveal their cards, and often exposing some odd assumptions about what is actually being reviewed and who is shaping the review within the Labour/Green/NZ First camp. For the sake of "joining the conversation" I thought I might share some my personal thoughts about the NCEA Review and it's proposed "Big Opportunities".

Note - the parts in italics are taken from this document: Download the Big Opportunities discussion document which can be found here

For what it's worth I actually think NCEA is pretty cool as it is. I like it's flexibility and that it already let's "you do you". If anything I think it is our mindsets that needs to be reviewed first before we get to the actual framework. Here is my pondering about that perspective: NCEA - we need to review our mindset first

But that said, I also see some great opportunities being presented via the NCEA Review.

Big Opportunity # 1: Creating space at NCEA Level 1 for powerful learning

What? Rebuild Level 1 as a 40 credit qualification – 20 for literacy and numeracy and 20 for a project.

Why? Reduces overall NCEA assessment workload, while giving learners a more engaging, relevant qualification, reflecting vital skills, knowledge, capabilities, and attitudes.

I couldn't agree more that NCEA assessment workload needs to be reduced and that Level One is the place to do it. However I personally don't think this goes far enough. Level One NCEA strikes me as a low value credential at best and I actually believe if we look at the evidence presented by ERO about the damage over assessment does, we would be better served by removing the expectation for students to complete NCEA Level One altogether. That said I do recognise for a small number of students Level One NCEA will be the qualification they leave school with, so for that reason I would retain it within the framework as an optional certificate (which it is already) for those that really need it. For the rest I would argue that a two year journey towards a rigorous and high quality Level Two NCEA Certificate (or three year journey towards LEVEL Three NCEA Certificate) would be far more powerful and hopefully a lot less stressful.

You can read the ERO report here: Wellbeing for Young People's Success at Secondary School (February 2015) : 19/02/2015 

You can also see how Hobsonville Point Secondary School have taken this approach already: Update on NCEA at HPSS (and introducing the HPSS Qualification Programme)

I can assure you, after experiencing the removal of Level One NCEA (as a seperate entity) first hand, that the sky has not fallen, nor have the grades. In fact our initial cohort who experienced this approach has gained similar pass rates at Level Two to the national cohort and decile band, and have gained higher levels of Merit and Excellence endorsement than those at similar schools, and have done so without stressing out.

Within this opportunity there is also mention of a seperate project qualification. I LOVE project based learning and in experiencing the facilitation of projects myself, I can say, hand on heart, that it represents some of the very best learning a student can experience. That said, the idea of a 20 credit project qualification also strikes me as problematic. Firstly, because I don't actually believe a high stakes assessment is needed for projects to be powerful learning. Secondly, I would also like projects to remain a place where it was safe to fail. Some of the biggest learning can come from trying, failing and trying again. And thirdly, a big old blob of an assessment feels oddly inflexible. One of the greatest attributes of NCEA is that it is innately flexible, which is awesome, for everyone. 

Instead I suggest the following. Projects could in a sense be seen as a new subject or learning area for those who are so inclined. Make it seem somehow compulsory for all and I think you would kill it. Within that learning area there could be a range of Achievement Standards designed around Design Thinking and Lean Startup frameworks and you could instead assess the ability to empathise, define, ideate, prototype, test etc. 

This might include standards such as: 
Define the needs and opportunities of a customer, client or project partner
Define a Problem within a defined context
Develop a range of ideas to address a defined problem and context
Develop a prototype for a solution addressing a specific problem and context
Undertake a critique of a solution for a specific problem and context

And so on and so forth. Thereby encouraging schools to see the potential for project based learning as stand alone or an integrated approach to learning, but doing it in such a way where it can be assessed either in part or in full depending on where the student or school is at. 

Plus I would offer this at Level Two and Three only. Thus encouraging schools to see that you can take time to go deep and wide with learning before focusing on high stakes assessment. 

You can see more about my journey into project facilitation and my initial thinking about what I like to reframe as an Innovation Curriculum: Prototyping an Innovation Curriculum - HELP! 

Big Opportunity #2: Strengthening literacy and numeracy

What? Benchmark literacy and numeracy at the level needed for success in further learning and employment.

Why? Gives confidence that every learner with an NCEA has the literacy and numeracy they need to  flourish.

As an English teacher with twenty years experience I would agree this is a great idea. Whilst I liked the idea of broadening how students gained numeracy and literacy through a wide range of standards I can also see the breadth has become somewhat problematic. I can see that there is a need for us to be careful about how we define and measure functional numeracy and literacy in such a way that it is actually a foundational set of numeracy and literacy skills that will support learners through further learning and living.

I do wonder if this might be simplified by creating a set of literacy and numeracy microcredentials that can be assessed through a range of learning contexts. The assessment and discrete threshold concepts and skills could be clearly defined and standardised whilst leaving it completely open as to how the learning may occur. Clear criteria could be set and students might submit portfolios of evidence through an national online platform when they and their teacher thought they were "at the level". This would be externally assessed and moderated to ensure it met "the standard", whatever that might be. I actually think this sort of internally taught but externally assessed approach (as long as it was inclusive and adhered to the principals of universal design for learning) could be a massive win for learners and teachers alike. You could address the "pearl clutcher's" concerns about unreliable internal assessments and also address the crisis of teacher workload as they try and get their head around increasingly complex demands. Plus it would level the playing ground around assessment opportunities and conditions.

More on this idea can be seen here: Future Focused Assessment - imagine if schools did no high stakes assessment...

Big Opportunity #3: Ensuring NCEA Levels 2 and 3 support good connections beyond schooling

What? Introduce pathways opportunities to NCEA Levels 2 and 3, giving every young person access to learning relevant to their pathway (e.g., from a community action project, work placement, research essay, or an advanced tertiary course).

Why? Helps prepare learners for the transition to work or further education, regardless of their pathway.

Yep. Like this idea. Again, wouldn't attach it to Level One and wouldn't design anything too big and clunky that would have the unintended outcome of students being streamed into this pathway only. Instead I would consider developing another subject or learning area, or maybe a strand within the wider 'Projects' learning area and call it Pathway Projects. Hobsonville Point Secondary School already have such an option which was developed by our Pathway Leader Jayne Dunbar and building on the wider Project Curriculum developed by Sarah Wakeford and Liz McHugh and team.

You can read more about that here:

Basically, I do believe there should be an opportunity for students to be recognised for the work they do in researching and developing their pathway beyond school, just as long as it doesn't accidentally becomes a stream that unintentionally narrows the learner's horizon.

Big Opportunity #4: Making it easier for teachers, schools, and kura to refocus on learning

What? Shift culture from achieving as many credits as possible to encouraging quality teaching and learning.

Why? Prioritises courses with deep learning, which help learners develop powerful knowledge, skills and capabilities, and attitudes.

Yep. Totally. Let's stop thinking about (and wasting money) digitising out-moded exams and instead think how can develop digital platforms, such as Amy the AI Maths Tutor, to support our teachers and learners and move to an approach where high stakes assessment is taken out of schools and replaced by a set of (inter)nationally recognised microcredentials that are designed to support universal design for learning (and assessment), that can be completed anytime and anywhere. Let's free up teachers to focus on developing robust teaching and learning relationships and providing more in-depth one on one support.

You can see more about my thinking around this topic here: The Digital Blue Yonder - what's on the digital horizon for education and how might we harness it?  

Big Opportunity #5: Ensuring the Record of Achievement tells us about learners’ capabilities

What? Enhance the Record of Achievement with better summary information and space for learners to detail achievements outside of NCEA.

Why? Makes the Record of Achievement better at explaining what learners are capable of.

Again, this gets a big old yes from me. At present the Record of Achievement is relatively meaningless, listing specific standards, which out of context mean little to anyone beyond the classroom.

My only real worry is that those pushing back against this are actually pushing back on the idea that everyone can succeed. I can't help feeling that in some think-pieces and statements already out there, there is a desire (by some) for a version of "academic rigour" that infers that a system is failing if everyone can enjoy personal success. That if a system doesn't somehow rank and divide it can't be seen as genuinely rigorous or reliable. Then again, maybe this is just my reading through my lens, one which is driven by a desire for equity and inclusiveness. I look forward to having my fears dispelled.

Big Opportunity #5: Dismantling barriers to NCEA

What? Make NCEA more equitable, starting with making it easier for learners to access Special Assessment Conditions and removing fees to enrol in NCEA.

Why? Gives every learner access to NCEA, regardless of their learning support needs or socio-economic status.

Hell yes! NCEA should never be unattainable due to financial or learning barriers. In fact I would go further and do this AND ensure every learner had access to a suite of online learning tools such as Grammarly and Text Help's Read and Write. I would ensure the principles of Universal Design for Learning were woven into every Achievement Standard and part of the design of any online learning or microcredentialling platform! We must do everything we can to ensure learning, assessment conditions and opportunities for achieving personal success are as equitable an inclusive as possible.

You can read more about the power of TextHelp here:

And more about UDL and learning design here:

And here:

In summary, we need to seize this opportunity to respond to the NCEA Review and its Big Opportunities. Please think carefully about your responses. Make sure you are fighting for a framework that can be personalised. Whether you're a grammar school, a traditionalist, progressive or a bleeding heart liberal, NCEA should be able to work for you, or rather it should, most importantly, work for your learners. This isn't about some lefty liberal takeover of education, it is however about ensuring our national assessment is fit for purpose, fit for the future and a fit for wherever you might sit on the educational landscape.

There is room for all of us! And room for all of us to succeed.

And a note to some. Stop trying to turn this into some daft binary debate about knowledge vs. skills. THIS IS NOT A CURRICULUM REVIEW. Also, we all know that skills in a vacuum is nonsense. Knowledge was, is, and will always be powerful. The skills required to do something with that knowledge is even more important.


Yes, we have issues with staffing to worry about.
Yes, we can get our knickers in a twist about the amount of reviews taking place.
Yes, we can feel peeved about who we have assumed who is being listened to (or not).

However, there is no denying...


Being inclusive does not mean that you have not been or will not be listened to. Quite the opposite. So read, think, debate, speak, write and give your feedback and ideas whilst you can.

Complete a survey or submit your lengthier thoughts here:

If you are interested in the wider debate you might also like to read:


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