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NCEA is more than just a marking system

I find a particular hatred in the minds of high school students for the marking schedule that, in their minds at least, dooms their secondary school qualification.

I could start by pointing out that no-one has truly argued that percentages cannot, however done, be substituted. For that matter, no-one seems to know that the old system didn’t rely on percentages, just rankings from first to last; nor that other marks-based systems still tend to report grades rather than numbers.

But even if the standards-based marking system that NCEA employs is as dooming as some make it to be, they forget than NCEA is an entire qualification, and at that, one that changes almost everything brought about by School Certificate and Bursary. And there is much more to a qualification than its assessment system. Amidst the confusion and mere horror of the grades received by these uninformed students, they forget that, besides the marking schedule, there are yet other more encouraging aspects of it.

I could take, for example, the disaggregation of subjects, which allows students to be recognised for their stronger points and divides the year’s work into discrete units of learning. Here, strengths and weaknesses can be considered. When aggregated, there is nothing to be said about specifically where a student did well.

This disaggregration brought about the vast flexibility offered by the NCEA. Students, with the support of their schools, can select and tailor their course to reflect on what they can do well in. Their records of learning detail precisely what they are capable of doing.

But, again, this seeming majority of uninformed students seem to pay a blind eye to the assessment system that puts them against standards, not peers. It seems ludicrous to them that a set objective standard is the target of their learning.

Would they rather fail — or, for the more gifted, have an able and competent someone else fail — just because half the country had a better day than them? Is it really that important to disguise the results so that the pass rate seems perfectly consistent? Do you really need to know that you outperformed your (just quietly, more talented) friend by half a percent that one time — and that makes you, in all aspects, better?

I find it remarkably strange that there are actually people that see that as important. People that see some lone number between 0 and 100 as fully descriptive of a candidate’s ability. Why 100? Why not 1000? 10,000? A million? The more precise the better, isn’t it?

The personal experience, self-centredness and most importantly lack of research undertaken leads to somewhat of a misunderstanding of the system. I don’t mean to say they have no justification for feeling disadvantaged or treated unfairly by the marking mechanisms. I don’t like them either. But there are more options than a mere return to numbers, sums, and bell curves. And for that matter, better ones.

In fact, the solution’s already been found. It’s been applied to Scholarship exams, but not NCEA. But that’s a different story altogether.


Scaling is the statistical, artificial manipulation of examination results so that a certain, exact proportion of candidates gets a certain result.

This blog is a somewhat exaggerated representation of my view.  Also, I don’t actually support the flexibility that NCEA offers.

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