Auckland Grammar School student Henry Chen was awarded the best mark in the world in a Cambridge physics exam last month.

The 2018 Outstanding Cambridge Learner Awards ceremony was held in Auckland and recognised 117 Kiwi secondary students who were among the highest achievers within that assessment system, including Chen who was named Best Across Three Cambridge International A Levels, and winner of Top in World for A Level Physics and Top in Country for A Level Chemistry.

Auckland Grammar is one of 46 New Zealand schools offering the UK-based Cambridge International (formerly Cambridge International Examinations or CIE) exams to its students.

In a press release about the event, headmaster Tim O’Connor said the system worked well for students because the “content is prescribed and rigorous, and it prepares students well for university pathways.”

“Our teachers tend to love Cambridge courses because of the opportunity to teach some high-level concepts and some curriculum content and skills that are no longer offered in New Zealand qualifications. It means we attract specialist teachers in their field who want to be able to share their knowledge, and our young men can have high-level, academic conversations and debates,” he said.

About 4500 Kiwi students sat the exams in Years 12 and 13 last year, but it is a true international qualification, with two million students enrolling worldwide.

Is it the chance to compete on a global scale that drives some schools to offer the Cambridge exams? Or, as O’Connor said, is there something else they offer that NCEA doesn’t?

Roger Franklin-Smith is senior country manager (Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific) for Cambridge International (CI) and says the system is about much more than purely assessment, something that a recent name change reflects.

“To regard us simply as an ‘examination and qualification offering’ is far from the truth – we offer a whole education package to schools across the globe. Cambridge International is the largest provider of international education for 5 to 19 year old learners,” he says.

Freedom from frequent assessment

In comparing the two qualification systems, Franklin-Smith describes pedagogic strategies, such as cross-curricular teaching and active learners, that champions of NCEA might also wax lyrical about.

But it’s in the details of assessment that he believes clearer differences emerge.

“CI’s assessment and qualification structures contrast with the use of Achievement Standards in NCEA. Students and teachers have the opportunity to explore learning across the subject relatively free from the pressures associated with frequent formal assessments.

“Cambridge learning programmes do include formative assessment to guide teaching and provide feedback to learners. Where considered an essential component of study, coursework that is internally-assessed by teachers (and moderated by CI) is incorporated into that syllabus,” he says.

“Cambridge programmes provide relief from ‘assessment-driven learning,’ which creates more time for learning and the opportunity to explore content, build understanding and practice, and refine critical learning skills.

“For the teacher it returns the opportunity to invest in creative learning activities that are not subject to the restrictions around multiple assessment scheduling and the heavy workloads associated with standards-based assessment.

But do these differences in assessment make a difference when it comes to preparing students for tertiary study? Franklin-Smith points to the global reputation of the Cambridge system.

“We believe a high level of transparency is evident in our A-Level qualifications. Students are assessed against an objective, uniform and global standard, which is set and validated by Cambridge International in consultation with the best universities worldwide.

“For this reason, universities and other tertiary institutions around the world recognise and value CI qualifications.”

But a representative from a consultancy organisation that helps Antipodean students successfully apply to prestigious overseas universities says a particular secondary school qualification is not the deciding factor that will open up pathways for students.

Crimson Education’s global director of tutor management Briony Gray says that most importantly, an ambition to achieve, combined with academic and extracurricular successes sees students find places top international universities.

“NCEA, CIE and International Baccalaureate (IB) certainly have their differences and the most common argument is that top universities in the US and the UK do not know how NCEA works and thus it’s difficult to rank an NCEA students against their peers.

“NCEA and IB follow models that are more like university in the sense that you have a balance of coursework and exams, however CIE predominantly only has final exams.

“Choosing a curriculum is about a student’s strengths and weakness, and about giving them the best chance at reaching success based on their goals. IB, CIE and NCEA are very different curriculums and suit different types of learners,” says Gray.

The value of flexibility

Though currently under review after 15 years in operation, NCEA, and how it prepares students for future pathways, is not without its supporters. The PPTA has long been a champion of our national system and at one time proposed that members lobby to drop Cambridge exams from all state schools.

“PPTA and secondary teachers have been the guardians of the NCEA over many years, because we can see its undoubted benefits for students,” states the union’s website.

“As a standards-based assessment system that is based on the principle that all students should have opportunities to succeed and to fulfil their potential, the NCEA has clear advantages over the previous norm-referenced qualification system, which had a built-in failure rate.”

In 2015, the PPTA put forward a paper that opposed the offering of CI exams in state secondary schools, on the grounds that the government should be clearly articulating the position that the home-grown qualification was robust, credible and capable of meeting the needs of the full range of students.

The New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA) website provides a list of specific countries that recognise NCEA and states that “the qualification is well-recognised overseas. It is well-regarded by employers and used for selection by universities, both in New Zealand and in other countries.”

These countries include but are not limited to the UK, USA, Thailand, South Korea, Germany, Australia and India. In addition, NCEA is listed in the reference guide International Qualifications for Entry to University or College, published annually by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS).

NCEA’s flexibility and transparency is often cited by the Ministry of Education, stating that schools must decide which qualification system to offer based on the needs and interests of their students.

“NCEA provides schools and kura with the flexibility to develop a range of courses and programmes to suit the learning needs of all their students. It accommodates students of all learning strengths, background knowledge, or experiences and enables them to prepare for the full range of pathways that lead to further study, training and employment,” says Ellen MacGregor-Reid, deputy secretary Early Learning and Student Achievement.

“The flexibility of NCEA also recognises that valuable learning for young people not only happens within schools, but also with other contexts such as polytechnics and industry training. It enables students to gain credits from both traditional school curriculum areas and alternative programmes.

“It also recognises that not all skills and knowledge can be assessed using tests and exams. NCEA provides a range of assessment methods that are appropriate to the subject being assessed.

“Unlike the old system, NCEA measures each student’s learning against set standards, instead of comparing students and ranking them,” she says.

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