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Spoiled by choice: How NCEA hampers education, and what it needs to succeed

School curriculum Educational tests and measurements Educational evaluation New Zealand
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New Zealand's National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) was born out of discontent with the former university-dominated system. Introduced between 2002 and 2004, it marked not just a change but an assessment revolution.

NCEA changed the way grades were determined, from comparing students against one another (norm-referencing), to comparing them against established standards.

It all but abandoned the idea of a core curriculum, as well as the reality that subjects are valued differently. Instead, NCEA was built to allow vast flexibility in course choices and on the principle of equal esteem.

To achieve flexibility, NCEA divided all subjects into multiple, smaller ‘standards’ – a process known as ‘chunking’. Many standards could be internally assessed, thereby eliminating the traditional ‘terminal’ exam. The logic was to empower schools and teachers to develop cross-curricular courses, so students could demonstrate specific skills or knowledge, even without mastering a whole subject. This way schooling would become more child-centred, practical, relevant and engaging to the full spectrum of students.

Such was NCEA’s promise: but its flexibility has been bought at unquantified cost.

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