Last year, secondary student Filip Vachuda’s experience of NCEA started a heated debate on Education Central. He questioned whether all NCEA subjects should be treated as equal; whether it was fair that calculus carried the same weight as dance studies, for example.

New research released today by the New Zealand Initiative reaches a similar conclusion, suggesting that we need to weight NCEA credits to give a better measure of how well our students are performing.

The report, released hot on the heels of the Initiative’s Spoiled by Choice: How NCEA hampers education, and what it needs to succeed report, notes that one of the strengths of NCEA is its flexibility and the way it allows students to focus on their strengths, but raises concerns about how easy it is to interpret students’ results.

At present student performance is measured mainly by NCEA completion rates. But report co-author Dr Eric Crampton says there are too many differences across courses, and too many ways of building certificates, for completion rates to provide any meaningful measure of student performance.

The report, co-authored with Initiative research fellow Martine Udahemuka, discusses how employers and universities currently have a difficult time distinguishing among candidates’ abilities when presented with similar certificates. It is also tempting for schools to direct students to less challenging courses in order to achieve targeted NCEA completion rates.

The report proposes an alternative measure, the Weighted Relative Performance Index (WRPI), which Initiative executive director Dr Oliver Hartwich says “gives credit where it’s due”.

“We should be weighing NCEA credits rather than simply counting credits or counting excellences,” says Crampton, who is the Initiative’s chief economist. “Recognising the differences in difficulty across standards gives a better measure of student performance. Better measurement of student performance can lead to better measurement of school performance.”

Hartwich says it’s not about ranking students.

“It is about recognising that our national award system encourages students to opt for easy-to-pass courses.”

The report gives an example of how the WRPI would work.

“To illustrate, a student might receive an Excellence in the ‘Perform a solo or duet dance’ standard. This standard is taken by another 1000 students in the country and 800 also receive an Excellence grade. If only 350 out of 1000 students attempting ‘Apply the algebra of complex numbers in solving problems’ achieve an Excellence grade, this second standard is likely the more challenging of the two.”

The Ministry of Education says it will consider the WRPI in its review of NCEA this year.

“The report’s suggestion of a Weighted Relative Performance Index is an interesting approach which we will look at closely. It’s worth noting the Ministry already uses a similar weighted approach, though not as a measure of individual student performance,” says Ellen MacGregor-Reid, Deputy Secretary Early Learning and Student Achievement.

“The report is a welcome contribution to the current discussion about NCEA and will inform the review process that is currently underway, looking at what improvements could be made to the qualification.”

The terms of reference for the NCEA review can be found here. The Ministry will be seeking the public’s views from the end of April.

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