{This post has been in the works since forever (the publication of part one, to be more specific), and now that I've finished my second last exam of this year I've decided to go ahead and spend more time on it. It's such a massive rant, and I even go as far as to suggest some "solutions" to the issues of this system (I'm so extra I know, don't come @ me because I'm not an education system expert okay I just know what works and doesn't work for me as a student). If you don't mind that, read on!}

Hey, I'm back with another post totally unrelated to books! Due to the popularity of my last post about my issues with the NZ education system, I'm back with part two, except this one is entirely geared towards high school (the final three years to be exact). If you haven't read "part one", my general explanations yet, you can do so here.

My main issue with the high school system is NCEA (National Certificate of Educational Achievement) run by the NZQA (New Zealand Qualifications Authority). This is an exam system used nationwide with the exception of a few schools, which do other programmes such as IB or Cambridge. But for this post I'll be focusing on NCEA, which is what my school uses, and it'll cover topics such as how exactly the system works, why I don't like it, and alternatives to this system.

What is NCEA?

You could probably google it for a concise definition (but don't quote me on the accuracy of that statement), but I'll try and explain it without making it sound too confusing. If you already know what it is/are or have done NCEA, feel free to skip ahead to the next section because you should also know all of this!

For your last three years of high school, the majority of your school work is geared towards getting NCEA standards, of which there are three levels. In the first of these years, Year 11, you're working towards Level One, in Year 12 (the most important year) you work towards Level Two, and in Year 13 Level Three. It's also possible to "skip ahead" in some cases, but that's another story.


Each assignment/exam, which I'm gonna call a task, earns you credits (usually between two and six per task). NZQA likes to think that each credit is roughly equivalent to ten notional hours, which is class time as well as homework. You can get your credits at four levels: not achieved (you don't get any credits, but they show up on your learning record under not achieved credits), achieved, merit, and excellence. These levels just show how well you did at the task as there is different marking criteria to see what level you're working at.

In order to pass the year, you need to gain eighty credits. However if you are trying to get a level two or three certificate and you've already done a lower level, you can 'take' twenty credits from that level so you only need sixty credits. Likewise, if you have credits from higher levels and you are trying to get a lower level endorsement, you can use those credits too.


For high achievers, there is an option to try for merit or excellence endorsement. There are two types of endorsement; certificate, and subject. Subject endorsements are considered harder to get. Certificate endorsement is where you get fifty or more credits at merit or excellence for a merit endorsement/fifty or more excellence credits for an excellence endorsement. This just means your certificate will say something like "John Doe achieved NCEA Level One with Excellence Endorsement".

Subject endorsements are endorsement on a smaller scale, in individual subjects. The courses of most subjects are usually around 20-24 credits, with a mix of internal (assignments, reports, research projects, performances, tests) and external (exams) assessments. To get a subject endorsement you need 14 excellence credits, with at least three internal and three external credits.

External Exams

I felt that this needed its own section as the way NCEA does it is quite different from a lot of other systems. With externals, you sit up to three papers in one subject and have three hours to complete them. Wait, what? Yeah, you read that correctly. It varies from subject to subject, but you can usually be entered in up to three external standards, which you sit in the three hour long exam. They're all marked individually too, so there's no bonus for doing more papers than other people; if anything, it's a disadvantage because there are gonna be people who spent ninety minutes on a paper and did better work than you if you spent one hour on a paper. Each paper is worth a certain amount of credits, usually ranging from 4-6.

Results come out in January, and if you're unsatisfied with your mark you can apply for a reconsideration, which is basically where a second marker remarks your work. If your grade is lifted, you get refunded the price ($20.40NZD per paper), otherwise your paper is returned and your money kept by the big bosses. If you're sick for the November exam, or feel that you've been influenced by events out of control such as (and I quote) the bereavement of a family member or close friend (look, I'm sorry, I don't want to make fun of this, but WHO EVEN USES THE WORD BEREAVEMENT ANYMORE (if you do please don't be offended I mean you no harm)), no worries! You can apply for a derived grade, which is where you get given the mark from your mock exam.

NZQA Scholarship Exams

NZQA also has the option of scholarship exams for high achievers, generally offered in year thirteen and sometimes year twelve. These are three hour long external examinations in which you can gain the award of Top Scholar, an outstanding scholarship, or a scholarship. I won't go into it any further, but if you're really interested search it up.

What's wrong with NCEA?

So there you have the basic rundown of the system. There are several key issues I have with it, and I'll go through them one by one.
  • external exams
My main issue with the external exams isn't that they exist (I actually really like exams), it's the way they're marked. For essays, out of 8, and for most other exams, out of 24. 24??!! As someone who is used to being able to get at least 40 points in an examination I fail to see how you could possibly differentiate well between the abilities of students with such small scale marking. The other thing is, a lot of the marking is subjective and you don't get marks unless you include evidence on the assessment schedule (a.k.a. what the writer of the exam wanted you to get from the paper).

Not everyone sits the same external standards. You don't get penalised for not attempting one paper as they're marked individually (in fact in many ways, not attempting is better than a not achieved because the paper just disappears from your NZQA record of achievement). Yes, this has been an advantage to me in History because I would've died doing all three papers (plus I hated the NZ significance one okay), but it's also been a disadvantage in subjects like English where I know many talented individuals who only attempt two papers as an attempt to do better in those two and sacrifice the third. I just think that it's stupid because why should people be disadvantaged by putting themselves under more pressure and doing three papers? Why should people not be penalised for not attempting a paper? It makes much more sense, since all papers test different areas of a subject, that you do get penalised for not doing a paper (or they could just follow my killer suggestions and combine the papers into one exam that everyone who takes externals will receive because obviously that's a far better method). 

How could this be fixed? Easy enough, I think. Redo the format of the exams so that it's marked out of 100 (cmon, 50 at least!) so it's percentage based rather than fitted to a curve: top 10% get excellence, next 10% get merit (if you really want to, next 20%), top 20/30-35/40% get achieved. Wait, does that sound harsh? I don't think so, because in other exams, 60/65% is the rate of pass, 80% merit and 90% excellence! But of course NCEA has made it so that by getting just over 1/3 of the paper correct you can pass... leaving the pass rate around 33-37.5% completion of paper. Also, if they really desperately wanted that curve, they could just go off people's scores and do the whole top 10% of people get excellence, etc! It's just that this way there's more room to differentiate between the scores of people, it's not so difficult to go up by one point, and you get a much better idea of where people are at. It's super easy to scale because it's unlikely that a whole lot of people are going to get the same mark to the extent where they are 10% of all students taking that paper so the excellence mark is raised, which is currently the case with marks out of 24. Also, what papers you take in the external shouldn't be optional; all available papers should be combined into the one exam (look, even with the current mark system that would total 72 marks, so even sticking to the current format could potentially work!) so that there aren't disadvantages or advantages of completing less/more papers. Everyone learns different stuff, you say? Well, maybe internally, but the end of year exam should be the same. It's designed so that you get to discuss what you've learned in class in the more humanities type subjects such as English, History and Drama (one of the only things I like about it), and there's no reason that would change with the new format.
  • english essay marking
Fine. I admit I've never actually had my essay marked in a proper external, yet. So we'll see how that goes after I get my results back in January, and I may just update y'all about that: positive or negative. If you really want me to do let me know in the comments! Anyway, moving on: the thing with essay marking is that it's really subjective. Of course, there's no solution to this. But what teachers and markers alike can do is stop making assumptions into students' knowledge or judge them for their essay style. In English class, students aren't taught how to write essays. We are taught about the content of a book, or rather a teacher's opinion on the book (and how we can stick that in our essay for bonus points). I'd like to hope that by this age, people have seen and done enough to form their own opinions on books written before the 21st century and that there is no need for a teacher to break it down sentence by sentence, plus add their opinion? What I'm proposing is that instead of focusing so much on what we're going to write about, in class we focus on HOW to write an essay and just apply it to the text we're studying. This would also reduce the subjectiveness of marking based on essay style, because everyone would've been taught a definitive, "NZQA approves" base. I know of teachers who mark harshly on essay styles they don't like because they expect everyone to have been taught English the way they teach it, which I think is total rubbish. And a lot of the time, essays and work written in class is marked based on how your views align with your teacher's, which shouldn't even be a factor of the marking.

How could this be fixed? Again, the scale needs to be expanded. Eight points is not nearly enough to differentiate between good and bad essays. There could be a large marking scale of say, thirty, and markers marked different aspects of the writing out of say five: grammar, use of evidence, structure, personal voice, comprehensiveness, etc. Alongside this could be the use of a check marker: currently, you can only get your work check marked if you apply for a reconsideration (I'll go until detail about that later). But by having a check marking system in place each essay would filter out subjective marking because unless you were unlucky at got two subjective markers the difference in marks would be quite evident (also why there needs to be a larger scale, to allow more difference). And again I don't think one exam should entirely consist of the essay; lets combine written, visual and unfamiliar text into the one exam!
  • reconsiderations and resubmissions
I think NCEA asked for this one. If you think your worked was marked unfairly, you can apply for a reconsideration (external). Some internals let you do resubmissions if you have made a minor error which the teacher believes the student could spot on their own (wait a minute, how could a minor error lift you up an entire grade? I'm not sure I comprehend). In this case, NZQA is pretty much saying "yes! There are double standards! If you think you've been subjected to one, pay and we'll reconsider your result (but it probably won't change because we're like that)!" Disagree if you like, but I think the whole idea of reconsiderations basically implies there are double standards. Yes, markers can make errors, and in that case definitely apply (through a different channel would be appropriate though, such as the way you apply for derived grades which is through your school). But it seems a lot of reconsiderations are applied for not in math, the subject of black and white marking, but subjects like English and History where it's quite literally up to the marker what they choose to give you.

With resubmissions, it's not that big of a deal. It's up to the teacher, and if they offer it to you you get it the one chance to fix your work. Usually it's just some grammatical errors or a minor calculation error. My issue with this is also less major, I just think you get the one chance. I'm sorry if you didn't notice it when you were doing it, but in the case of assignments, the deadline has passed and you've had your chance to spot the errors; in the case of tests, it's a timed test. Why should you get extra time, and at that, it's extra time given after you're told you could lift your grade if you spot the error (Where's Wally?). 

How could this be fixed? How about, get rid of them! (Sorry if you don't agree. But I do.) It's unfair to people who work hard and say get a secure merit grade don't have the chance to lift their grade because they weren't close enough to excellence, but then someone whose work was "very nearly excellence" gets that chance.
  • derived grades
Whoa, here's another hot topic, somewhat controversial, where I take the side of high achievers. Oops. Well... The thing with derived grades is, I feel that it disadvantages students who actually sit the exams. Of course, it's really unfortunate if you aren't able to sit the exam/don't do the best for whatever reason. But I just don't think it's fair that you can submit for grades from mock exams. In my experience, a lot of mock exams are deceivingly easy because a technique teachers use is to make you feel calm for exams by giving you an easy mock. The only exception to this at my school is the maths department, which believe it is better to give you something more difficult so that you know if you can do well in that exam, you'll do fine in the real one, or you realise there are gaps in your knowledge which you then have time to fix up before the real thing.

How could this be fixed? Perhaps instead of assigning grades to the derived grades process, there could be something where people who weren't able to attend for whatever reason can apply with evidence of school work that they would easily be able to pass the paper? This still wouldn't be an ideal situation of course but it would remove the unfairness of getting higher grades from an easier exam and would make it so that the students didn't entirely miss out on getting a mark for the exam even if it might be lower than desired.

  • internals
There is a new practice at schools now called "credit farming". This is essentially where the schools try and get their students as many credits as possible through internals with little regard to the quality of the learning (see here). This can be especially advantageous for high achieving students because it's an easy way to earn lots of excellence credits which is the primary factor in deciding the recipients of university scholarships in New Zealand.

I'm not totally against internals; they're cool, and a much more reliable source of credits than externals which can be quite flaky. But that doesn't mean I don't think they count as far too much of your course's overall level of achievement. The end of year exams should be a key factory, but with NZQA it's internals too. They can be fun, but they aren't difficult enough to truly measure ability. And also, each school has a different procedure which can't be fixed even through moderation and the other measures NZQA has in place.

How could this be fixed? Firstly, the externals need to be more reliable and the criteria for each grade really clear. This would make internal credits less valuable, so the course could spend more time focusing on the external exams instead of expending so much energy on internals which I feel is the less valuable part of the course.

So there you have it. If you've gotten this far, then wow! Congrats on getting through something this long and boring. What is the education system like where you are?