NCEA slammed by tertiary assessors

by Catherine Woulfe / 30 November, 2013
NZ secondary school qualification system causing serious problems, finds official report.
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A confidential Tertiary Education Commission report reveals profound and widespread concerns about the way NCEA prepares students for further study. It paints a picture of substandard mathematics and science education, NCEA students coming unstuck in their first year at university and tertiary providers scrambling to come up with their own diagnostic tests and remedial courses.

The document is a summary of formal reports from 15 tertiary institutions – universities and polytechnics – that offer engineering courses. The institutions are not named. One told the Tertiary Education Commission (TEC): “An extremely significant concern is the poor preparation of the bulk of our student cohort following NCEA study.”

The report, drawn up as part of the Government’s plan to boost the numbers of engineering graduates, was presented at a high-level TEC meeting on September 2. The Listener was leaked a key page and obtained the full document under the Official Information Act.

The problems the report flags with NCEA fall into three main categories:
• students getting confused or being given poor advice on subject choice;
• those who do the right subjects still being unprepared for tertiary level study; and
• the system not creating a good work ethic.


Providers also highlight “the trend of schools protecting their league tables by actively discouraging marginal students” from taking maths and science subjects. They warn this “needs to be immediately investigated and stopped”.

This issue was detailed at length in a Listener investigation in May. Similar practices – particularly targeting Maori and Pasifika students – were later confirmed by the Education Review Office.

The providers also urge the TEC to quickly resolve “the ‘work ethic’ created by the NCEA system”.

One provider told the TEC it is “concerned with NCEA more broadly, and notes that the NCEA system does not prepare students for the work required at the tertiary level, both in the sense of providing the necessary prior knowledge, and in encouraging the creation of a work ethic that will stand them in good stead throughout their first year of engineering study and beyond”.


Dale Carnegie. Photo/Dale Flynn/NZH

Dale Carnegie, a professor at Victoria University’s School of Engineering and Computer Science, prepared his university’s submission (not the one quoted above) in conjunction with the Wellington Institute of Technology. He tells the Listener: “I would absolutely stand up in front of anyone and say that for the bulk of the students that Engineering sees, the study habits that they have developed and been permitted to use for NCEA have adversely affected their ability to survive university engineering study.”

Carnegie’s analysis shows that students coming into Victoria with NCEA Merit or Excellence grades are coping well. But most of their engineering students get into university based on “Achieved” grades. Anecdotal evidence is that some of those students “don’t sufficiently understand the subject and we feel that, historically, they would have been awarded a fail grade”.

Carnegie’s submission warns that students tend to “game play” NCEA at school, then run into problems when they realise this is not possible at university. It also says there is a growing awareness among tertiary providers that University Entrance “no longer guarantees capability and performance” in maths, physics and engineering. This issue was highlighted by the Listener in June.


The New Zealand Qualifications Authority says NCEA students are achieving well in New Zealand and internationally. “Feedback is also telling us that NCEA prepares students well for tertiary study and further training.”

NZQA “stresses the importance to students of selecting the right courses” and says the step up to tertiary level is a problem in many countries and was a concern here before NCEA was introduced. It notes the report says many countries have concerns over the teaching of maths and science. “This is not just a New Zealand issue.”

NZQA points to 2008 research comparing how the NCEA and Cambridge systems prepare students for university, which found NCEA had “outstanding predictive power”. It also outlines a 2011 OECD report that found “NCEA prepares students well for tertiary study and further training”. [The methodology behind that report has been criticised.]

NZQA calls the TEC report an “opinion piece”. Carnegie can see why, but adds “it’s an opinion shared by a significant number of my colleagues”, and he would welcome funding to be able to investigate more fully.

Science and Innovation Minister Steven Joyce says the report was a partial driver for the move – announced five days after a version of this story was published on the Listener website – to spend $10.5 million on improving maths and science education in schools. Carnegie appreciates that initiative, but notes that the funding is aimed at younger students, not those sitting NCEA.


On the frontline, the report shows providers are telling the TEC that even when students pass the right NCEA subjects at school, “the majority of students are still unprepared for tertiary-level mathematics and physics”. Poor grounding in mathematics “was highlighted as a major issue for almost all providers … Some prospective engineering students are not equipped with basic numeracy skills.”

Providers note they feel an ethical duty to help these students, and are under financial pressure to do so because their funding is based on retention. Many are struggling to fill places and are topping up their numbers with international students.

Steven Joyce. Photo/NZPA/Ross Setford

This could be a significant roadblock to the Government’s goal of turning out 500 more New Zealand engineering graduates each year, starting in 2017. The 2011 and 2012 Budgets channelled $51 million into this project – money that Carnegie says has been invaluable; at Victoria it has been used to employ a pastoral care worker who last year directly helped 39% of its first-year engineering students. The university has also set up an early warning system, which it calls Big Sister, to monitor students and let staff quickly identify and support any falling behind.

Without that funding, hundreds of students would have floundered, Carnegie says.

Joyce points out that the Government has also introduced the Vocational Pathways scheme, to give students clear direction about which school subjects they need to take “so they don’t wake up after two years in senior high school and discover, ‘Oh, I’ve headed down the wrong track.’”

Meanwhile, tertiary providers are addressing students’ “weaker abilities” by ramping up remedial courses and tutorials, after-hours online and phone support, and mentoring. They are also contacting careers advisers and teachers and devising their own diagnostic tests to work out which students are at risk of failing.

But the TEC report warns the effectiveness of interventions “should not be seen as a cause for celebration. It is surely far better if students progress directly into engineering courses prepared, having had an excellent education in science and mathematics.”

It quotes Carnegie’s submission: “These solutions are costly and have also ignored the larger problem: why are students, who are supposedly prepared through NCEA, poorly prepared?”

Read the NZQA's response in full here.

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