Wednesday, 26 November 2014


I've talked about NCEA quite a bit and I know a lot of people do. However, a lot of people love to talk (specifically complain) about NCEA with only a vague understanding of how it works. I've decided to add to the wealth of material explaining NCEA with my own understanding of it. Just a quick note, while "the NCEA" is, strictly, more correct than NCEA no-one will take you seriously if you call it that. Stick with NCEA.

NCEA is a three-tiered standard-based qualification. The three tiers are NCEA Levels One, Two and Three; these are usually taken by Year Elevens, Twelves and Thirteens respectively. To pass NCEA Level One, a candidate (i.e. pupil) needs to gain 80 credits at, at least, NCEA Level One. The candidate also requires ten literacy and numeracy credits that are part of a variety of standards across many subjects: not just those in English and maths. The following two levels also require the ten literacy and the ten numeracy credits to have been met. However, Levels Two and Three can carry 20 credits from the preceding level over; thus, a candidate needs only 60 credits at Level Two or higher for Level Two and so on. Oh, and if you get 50 credits above achieved, you get at least a merit endorsement, Now, that's an overview: it needs breaking down further.

What are credits?

They are, simply, a way of counting how much something is worth. A can of baked beans is sold for $1, it's "worth" a dollar. A standard is passed and it's worth, usually, 4 credits. There is some allowance for the amount of effort that is required but this is flawed. For example, the Level Two statistics standard that I sat in 2012 was worth a miserable two credits. It was, in my view, at least three and it would've been better had our other internal, on graph theory, been worth three as well... rather than the 2/4 reality. The Level Three trig and simultaneous equations were both piss easy and more deserved of two credits than the Level Two stats standard that we did. Achievement with excellence in a four credit standard will yield four credits -- as will barely scraping an achieved.

What is a standard?

It's a thing to be assessed. A standard has a number and also an explanation. For example, one of the level three classical studies standards is: 91394 Analyse ideas and values of the classical world. The standard embodies the paper (i.e. the assessment) as well as the criteria that the candidate must meet to achieve (and which additional criteria are needed for merit and excellence). In this sense, standards are the heart of NCEA. They are what candidates do, what teachers mark and they are what performance is measured against. I'm a huge fan of standard based educational systems because they're transparent and the candidate (i.e. the pupil) knows that their work is at a certain level. Standards mean that a candidate's performance is theirs and doesn't reflect the wider intelligence of their cohort. For universities and employers and everyone really, it's totally useless knowing that Johnny is in the top 2% of his cohort. That doesn't actually say whether or not he knows what he's meant to. 99% of the cohort could be thick as bricks, or maybe they're super intelligent. If you see that Johnny achieved 91394 with merit then you know with absolute certainty how much he knows. Relative rankings have their place (for instance, deciding who gets a scholarship) but in the general purpose sense standards are far superior.

You get unit and achievement standards, and it is sufficient to know that unit = N or A and achievement = N, A, M or E.

What are Internals? Externals?

These are the two different ways of marking NCEA standards. Internals are marked throughout the year by the school. They are often written by teachers within the school or modified versions of more widely used standards. Externals are marked externally, i.e. by NCEA markers. They are usually sat in the National exams that happen in November (and run into early December?) but in some cases work done during the year in schools counts (Art and Graphics are good examples of this sort of subject). Externals are, as such, mostly exams with some portfolio work. Internals can be done in tests, written reports, PowerPoints, blogs (I guess), speeches, plays, and really any method of assessment that the teacher considers to be appropriate for the standard. I am given to understand standards are subject to moderation but, for the most part, National Moderation works on a sample basis.

What is Level One? Two? Three?

This is a quick answer... these describe the relative difficulty or level of the work being done. While a candidate may not always feel as if level one work was actually easier than level three work (who knows, they may have just worked harder), the levels represent broad categories of difficulty. This is more or less the experienced reality rather than the theory which I think is clear. There is a definite leap from level one to level two, but I don't recall noticing a jump except in terms of workload (even with a subject less) when going from two to three.

How many credits in a level?

This varies and it varies a lot. The number of credits that a candidate has available is dependent on both their subject choices and their school. It also depends on their teacher. For instance, some schools might offer only one internal for level three calculus and choose to focus on the externals. Other schools might choose to offer as many internals as there are (I'm not sure how many there are, we did two). As a general guideline I found that one could make a functional estimate of six standards per subject and four credits per standard, leaving an estimate of 24 credits a subject. A lot of courses/subjects will have at least one standard worth more than five and it's a rough approximation so you need to check how many credits a candidate has available by counting them. It's worth recalling that a candidate with 124 credits gets the same qualification as a candidate with 81 credits. A lot of people consider this to be an issue with NCEA but it's a minor quibble as NCEA recognises achievement in other ways.

How does NCEA recognise achievement? It's only got four marks...

If you can pass, you get achieved. If you do well, you get merit. If you do very well, you get excellence. This isn't quite how it works (i.e. an excellence means additional criteria as well extended achieved level criteria are met) but it's how NCEA is experienced by candidates. To many people, not being able to tell if Johnny's excellence is better than Mary's is a problem but recall what I said earlier about relative rankings... they don't matter so much. However, NCEA does reward consistent performance and I think it rewards it well. I'll now explain those methods of reward.

Certificate Endorsement

This is probably the main form of reward and it relates to the overall certificate that one achieves. If, for instance, you get 50 excellence credits and achieve NCEA Level One you will be awarded "NCEA Level One with Excellence". In practice this means one needs to get at least a third of their available credits at excellence, which is not that hard to do if one can work at a very high standard for the entire year. Depending on subject choices, it is unreasonable to expect to be able to pass with excellence before externals start but it is entirely possible for some people to do so. Frankly, I agree with those who say that NCEA just lets people slack off before the exams because of this in that 50 is too low, I think it should be raised to 60 credits given that most candidates will always sit at least 120 credits (i.e. 5*24). This will mean basically everyone will not pass with excellence before the external exams. Achieving fifty merit and excellence, or just merit, credits leads to certificate endorsement with merit. Basically, certificate endorsement just means, "This candidate was able to maintain a high standard throughout the year". (That being said, one could bomb all internals and be the bomb in externals and still get a certificate endorsement.)

Course Endorsement

Three credits from each of the internal and external standards, and at least 14 credits altogether obtained in a single year within a course leads to a course endorsement. These aren't nationally comparable because different schools do choose to use different standards and, therefore, offer differing numbers of credits. As such, Johnny's merit course endorsement in Year Eleven English may be less impressive than Mary's because Mary's school's Y11 English offers 20 compared to 28 credits. That's another made up Johnny/Mary example but it shows the point.

What about Scholarship? Isn't that part of NCEA?

Scholarship and NCEA are separate but Scholarship is administered by NZQA and functions pretty much like NCEA does. The candidate turns up to the exam room, opens the plastic wrapping after a life and death struggle and writes stuff to answer the standard. Scholarship is a higher level examination with variable passing scores and all passing does is get the candidate money. In theory, 3% of the NCEA cohort in a subject will achieve Scholarship. This doesn't always happen and low numbers skew the numbers a lot but it's good enough. A lot of CIE and, presumably, IB pupils also have a go at Schol (as is the shorthand) and they can do well. However, it is harder for them as Schol does use the same base material as NCEA. Some subjects will be more affected by this than others... History is one of those that wouldn't be. It's also worth recalling that in Schol the markers look for somewhat different things as well (for instance, writing that has flair). There have recently been some (to my mind grossly unfair/inequitable) changes to how candidates enter Schol and payment is required for all of the standards entered. There are two kinds of pass: Scholarship and Outstanding. There is also a single "Best in Subject" award. Schol is exactly the sort of thing where relative performance is okay.

Is University Entrance a form of Reward?

Sort of. UE is an award that NZQA gives to Level Three achievers who have met some additional criteria. Again, it's not really a part of NCEA but in this case it is exclusively based on NCEA results. To my mind, this is a far superior system to having some additional testing to go to uni. However, UE is a minimum standard. This means that if you've got UE a university doesn't need to accept you but they do know that you've theoretically got the knowledge base to be able to complete a university degree. Prospective university students have to be aware of the additional criteria their desired unis enforce. The current requirements for UE are:

  • NCEA Level Three
  • At least 14 Credits in each of three subjects (i.e. 42 all up)
  • 5 Credits in Reading and 5 Credits in Writing at Level Two or above
  • 10 Numeracy Credits at NCEA Level One or above

What are Literacy and Numeracy Credits?

NCEA recognises that literacy is required to achieve in many standards, not just those in English. Something similar can be said about maths. As a consequence, NCEA publishes lists of standards that meet literacy and numeracy requirements.

What is Grade Score Marking?

As of 2013, this is how all externals are marked. Any question is marked out of 8 with N0, N1, N2, A3, A4, M5, M6, E7 and E8 being the possible results. For standards that have multiple questions (i.e. pretty much all non-essay based standards) NCEA publishes mark ranges that correspond to the NAME marks. A GSM of 32/32 and 29/32 with a GSM of 28-32 achieving excellence are, on paper, worth exactly the same thing. Perfect scores for papers with three or more questions were, in my experience as an NCEA candidate, reasonably rare. The best I ever did was 31/32 for Genetic Variation in Year Eleven... a standard that many of my friends managed 32/32. The message is, have an awareness of how this works and use it to help provide motivation but it doesn't matter too much.

Hopefully that's a clear explanation of both NCEA as a general system and also some specific aspects of NCEA with some commentary provided. I know for a fact, though, that there are clearer explanations out there. NZQA and schools put a lot of effort into making sure pupils and their parents understand the system. In my experience, pupils get it very quickly and understand that NCEA looks at the long term performance, not just a month's worth of cramming... although for most pupils they'll probably have around 50% of their credits available in externals (if they do more conventional subjects).

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