Diplomas or Certificates of Achievement? A Look at NZ’s NCEA

The American high school diploma is a powerful benchmark, but a very weak credential. We want every teenager to walk across the stage to get their diploma. But what the diploma actually means is highly questionable. Some students receiving a diploma can barely read, top students may be required to take remediation at college.

New Zealand doesn’t offer a secondary diploma. Instead it has developed the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA).  It is a certificate of achievement that indicates the level of achievement that students have learned at their completion of school. NCEA certificates of achievement aren’t received. They are earned. Time in the seat doesn’t matter. What matters is demonstrating learning. The NCEA is a very sophisticated system with intentional thought given to ensuring that it is meaningful to students, schools, and the tertiary system. Part of the reason it is able to offer a meaningful credential is that the New Zealand Qualifications Authority is dedicated to and responsible for ensuring consistency in credentialing in secondary school, higher education and the workforce development system.
Certifying Learning: Students are expected to remain in school through Year 13 (the same as our twelfth grade), although students can leave school earlier with hopefully a Level 1 or Level 2 certificate in hand. NZ’s Ministry of Education has policy goals to increase the number of students who complete all thirteen years, the number of students who receive certificates of achievement, and the levels of certificates of achievement earned. (Please note: The idea of extended graduation rates or multiple pathways in which students leave secondary school and can then return seemed foreign to nearly all of the educators I spoke with about it. Although they are organized around the idea that students are in different places on the continuum of learning, the idea of extending time hasn’t accompanied it.)

The certificate, managed by the New Zealand Qualifications Authority, is part of the adult education and workforce development system. The Level of certificate opens different doors.  Young adults can continue to earn higher certificate levels in college or university, through technical programs, or in other training programs. (See previous article about curricular and achievement levels.)
This is how NCEA works (from NZQA website):

  • Each year, students study a number of courses or subjects.
  • In each subject, skills and knowledge are assessed against a number of standards. For example, a Mathematics standard could be: Apply numeric reasoning in solving problems.
  • Schools use a range of internal and external assessments to measure how well students meet these standards.
  • When a student achieves a standard, they gain a number of credits. Students must achieve a certain number of credits to gain an NCEA certificate.
  • There are three levels of NCEA certificate depending on the difficulty of the standards achieved. In general, students work through levels 1 to 3 in years 11 to 13 at school.
  • Students are recognised for high achievement at each level by gaining NCEA with Merit or NCEA with Excellence. High achievement in a course is also recognised. For more information, read about Endorsements.

It’s important to note that there is nothing inherent in this system that demands that the Levels be earned sequentially. Nor does it demand that courses be organized in single academic domains rather than interdisciplinary. Yet, most secondary schools across New Zealand have organized themselves so that students are in single domain courses, pursuing Level One in Year 11, Level Two in Year 12, and Level Three in Year 13. At least one school, Hobsonville Pt. Secondary School, is experimenting with skipping Level 1 altogether in order to extend the time that students can engage in deeper learning in interdisciplinary courses and to support them in building more robust understanding so that more can earn endorsements when they do start to take the assessments in Year 12.

Portability: The levels of achievement and whether students have met university admissions requirements become part of a portable transcript called the Record of Achievement. Whenever students enroll in university or training programs, they then continue their studies to achieve higher levels of achievement. Some students earn their Level 2 certificate while in post-secondary education.

Standards-Based: The NCEA system is standards-based. It was designed to value all the different types of standards that students might want to develop. They didn’t want to value or privilege engineering more than the arts or language or the trades. Standards for vocational pathways, learning Te Reo Māori (the Māori language), chemistry, or the arts are all assigned a number of credits based on an estimate of how long it takes to learn the standard. Thus, time-based credits still drive the system.
To earn Level 1, students must earn 80 credits at any level (Level 1, 2, or 3) including literacy and numeracy. To earn Level 2, students must earn 60 credits at Level 2 or above + 20 credits from any level. To earn Level 3, students must earn 60 credits at Level 3 or above + 20 credits from Level 2 or above.
There are two types of standards:

  • Unit standards are process standards that are considered competency-based in that students demonstrate they can apply the process in new contexts.
  • Achievement standards are taken from the New Zealand Curriculum that was developed by the Ministry of Education.

Students can demonstrate their learning in either English or Te Reo Māori. It is the demonstration of the mastery of the specific standard that is important, not which of the national languages is used.
Students can select which standards they want to earn among 60 subjects included in the NCEA. Compare this more student-centered approach to the high school graduation requirements in the U.S. that tend to provide few elective opportunities. However, there are two limits on student choice. First, schools influence this by which subjects and courses are offered with online learning helping to expand options. Second, there is a minimum requirement for university admissions requirements:

  • Student Selected: 14 credits in each of three approved subjects at Level 3;
  • Literacy: 10 credits at Level 2 or above, made up of 5 credits in reading and 5 credits in writing; and,
  • Numeracy: 10 credits at Level 1 or above, made up of achievement standards in a range of subjects; or all three numeracy unit standards 26623 (solving problems with numbers), 26626 (interpret statistical information for a purpose), and 26627 (use measurement to solve a problem).

This is an example of how NZ has sought to form a seamless system that balances interests. Students have choices about what credits they might earn while also having transparency about the level of achievement that is needed to access the next step in their education. However, being able to apply to university isn’t the same as being accepted. Let’s move on to the system of endorsements.

Endorsements and a National Grading Policy: The A-F grading policy is a dominant feature of the U.S. education system. The A-F grades aren’t just applied to student learning; in many states, schools are given grades. Teachers each have their own system of distributing points, and until state standards, the grading was entirely subjective. Children receive grades with little or no opportunity to revise. Thus, there is little benefit from grading beyond labeling, ranking, and sorting. Yet, we have seen community after community push back to changes in grading policies as schools shift toward personalized, competency-based education.

Thus, it is hard to understand that New Zealand essentially has a national grading policy that has emerged from the NCEA system. At first, NCEA was designed to determine that students were either proficient or not. Over time, universities called for a system of endorsements to help them rank and sort students in the university admissions process. Thus a system of cut scores were created to determine where students are in their learning: Not Achieved; Achievement; Achievement with Merit; Achievement with Excellence. This has become the de facto grading policy in secondary schools across New Zealand.

We’ve learned through experience, as New Zealand did, that it is very important to make sure that students have opportunity to excel. However there is a shadow side to this policy of credits and endorsements: stress and narrowing of understanding of achievement. Educators spoke about the stress that comes from the pressure to achieve the endorsements of merit and achievement. Students start to lose the sense of purpose that comes from intrinsically motivated and engaged learning and focus on counting credits and the points that come from the endorsements. From what I can tell, this is no difference from the top achieving students in American high schools checking their GPA daily and to several decimal points.

In addition, the focus on credits and endorsements can undermine the broader pedagogical approach outlined in the National Curricula (consisting of the the English-medium NZ Curriculum and the Te Marautanga o Aotearoa). Although my focus was on modern schools rather than the traditional ones, several educators said that most of the higher income secondary schools were tremendously traditional. Teachers lecture, students study, and external assessments are taken at the end of each year. And the cycle starts again the coming fall.
It’s a tricky thing to balance. We want students to be able to excel and differentiate themselves while also wanting them to explore concepts deeply, take risks in their learning, and develop into young adults with character, ethics, and maturity. NCEA hasn’t gotten this balance quite right yet and they know it. While I was there, the NCEA was under review. One of the ideas that has been put forward is including that one project be completed with a focus on civic engagement or other aspects of life beyond school for every level of the NCEA.  

System of Assessments: The saving grace of this system is within the moderated system of assessments. Assessments are designed for the higher level of Bloom’s. To achieve the endorsements of Merit and Excellence, students have to demonstrate that they can transfer concepts and skills to challenging problems.
The NZQA manages two systems of assessments: internal and external. Internal assessments are designed by teachers around specific standards. Students can demonstrate their learning at any time and are able to revise until they reach the level of achievement that they seek. Teachers can be creative in how students demonstrate learning. One principal excitedly showed me a set of assessments using the medium of graphic novels in which students demonstrated their analysis of The Scarlet Letter.
It’s important to understand that the NZ education system values Overall Teacher Judgment (OTJ) using multiple sources of data to determine student progress and guide instruction. Internal assessment processes help to build the OTJ. Thus, the internal assessment policy is designed to also build and sustain instructional and assessment capacities within schools. The Ministry of Education offers substantial resources on internal assessments.

External assessments are designed and managed by the NZQA. Students take external assessments according to preset timetables that are reviewed by trained markers. In addition to the NZQA assessments, students can also choose to take international assessments such as IB assessments or Cambridge. There are some programs in university, such as engineering, that will only accept external assessments. This is another example of the tertiary sector influencing the NCEA and student experience by creating their own set of rules.
Two other things to know about the system of assessments: First, some subjects such as visual arts require a portfolio to be submitted to NZQA for assessment. Second, there are additional scholarship examinations that are externally assessed. Students earn monetary awards but the examinations do not earn credits.
This system of assessment only works because it is highly moderated. If there wasn’t adequate moderation, the result would be that variability would reign as it does in the U.S.

Moderation: Not everything was as well designed when NCEA was first implemented. There were problems that were big enough to have caused a pushback of the policy such as we have recently seen in Maine. Instead of backing down as the Maine legislature did, NZ leadership stayed the course on its larger vision of restructuring education policy to create more empowered, responsive schools; transparent framework of learning objectives; and meaningful certificates of achievement.

One of the big problems was that there were higher levels of variability in assessing achievement than expected. This could easily have been the downfall of the new policy. However, the NZQA quickly responded by building out a much stronger system of moderation. The NZQA external moderation “provides assurance that assessment decisions are consistent with the national standard” across all schools. They strengthened the moderation strategies for internal assessments with ongoing sampling of student work. Schools and teachers receive feedback if situations in which the determination of achievement is either too low or too high. They expanded the capacity of professional moderators who review student work for internal assessment and grade the external assessments. It’s easy to jump to the conclusion that this is too expensive for a state to do. However, think about the cost and effectiveness of accountability testing, our policy choice for quality assurance. Couldn’t a state direct resources toward moderation capacity rather than testing?

This is probably one of the most important lessons for the U.S., as variability has been a driving force behind the standards and accountability policies. We turned to assessments to inform accountability policies while leaving schools to manage the harmful by-products: instruction driven by policy rather than being student-centered; labeling of students and schools; shame and blame; and a culture of fear.


NCEA is currently under review. Stay tuned for the changes Aotearoa New Zealand will make in fine tuning its system of credentialing learning.

If you are going to New Zealand, be sure to read NCEA in Context. There are other resources at NZQA and NZCER that will be valuable as well.

This article has been adapted from an original article published at CompetencyWorks in 2018.

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