“Heads in the sand” as students fail new NCEA standards

“I don’t think it should come as any surprise to teachers who are paying attention,” says Dr Michael Johnston, Associate Dean of Victoria University’s School of Education.

Discussing the fallout following results of a pilot study of new NCEA standards, he told School News: “I think teachers have a fairly good idea of the literacy levels of young people.”

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His comments have come as a point of difference to media outlets and educational experts who have expressed shock reacting to early pilot results that show two thirds of Kiwi students fail the new writing standard,

Dr Johnston said he hoped the news might be motivating for teachers and school leaders: “We need some pressure from the teaching profession to reform the way in which we approach literacy, and numeracy for that matter, especially in primary schools.

We need to use much more evidence-based approaches that actually work, and for far too long in NZ we’ve used approaches that don’t work for too many children, and this is the result.

Those results from the Ministry of Education’s pilot study of assessments for incoming NCEA standards in representative schools across deciles and geographical locations were released under the Official Information Act, and have surprised the wider public by revealing that one third of students failed the new numeracy and reading standard.

In response, independent think tank, The New Zealand Initiative has published a list of recommendations to steer the ship around, authored by Dr Johnston. Summarising these, he advised School News, “we need, at least in the interim, to have some programmes in secondary schools and perhaps upper primary schools for those who have missed out on the most effective teaching in literacy and numeracy.”

He said: “The Ministry of Education really needs to step up and provide some resources to do that. So far, they seem to be sticking their heads in the sand; they’re not really admitting that there’s as much of a problem as there is, so that’s a little bit of an issue.

“To me, that’s where school leaders can really help and make some public noise about the problem.”

Do the pilot study results provide an accurate representation of the NCEA changes?

Ministry representative Ellen MacGregor-Reid, Hautū (leader) Te Poutāhū (Curriculum Centre) summarised: “As part of changes to strengthen NCEA, new literacy and numeracy | te reo matatini me te pāngarau standards are being introduced as a corequisite to the qualification. This is to support young people with the foundational skills required for learning, life, and work. Last year, a small-scale pilot took place with learners in 13 secondary schools, six kura and two tertiary providers across Aotearoa New Zealand.”

According to Ms MacGregor-Reid, “the mini pilot cohort in 2021 meant the results were not representative and can’t be regarded as likely NCEA attainment levels for future learners as most participants in the mini-pilot were Year 9 or 10 ākonga, who will have further opportunities to sit the assessments again”. 

However, Dr Johnston said: “They think that the pilot they ran last year was not a representative sample and pointed out it was run on Year 9 and 10 students rather than Year 11 students who, by and large, will be the ones to whom it’s aimed. But, first of all, the sample was representative enough to give us a good idea of what’s going to happen.

“And second, unfortunately, students don’t make much progress on literacy between Year 9 and Year 11. So, maybe they’ll do a bit better than they did in this pilot but [with just] 34 percent achieving in writing, you could come up 20 percentage points from there and still have a catastrophe on your hands.”

When approached for comment, Ms MacGregor-Reid told us: “In creating new standards, we are updating and reinforcing the sector’s shared understanding of what foundational skills in these areas look like. As such, the results could reflect the need for further support for young people with literacy and numeracy | te reo matatini me te pāngarau.

“The Ministry is supporting the sector with newly available resources and with additional funding for regional experts to prepare for the changes. As well as this, the Ministry will be implementing the Literacy and Communications & Maths Strategies and Hei Raukura Mō Te Mokopuna to provide change across the whole learning pathway.”

What approach should teachers take?

“They need to take a more structured approach to teaching literacy and numeracy,” said Dr Johnston, advising that teachers be trained to draw on cognitive psychology, “what they sometimes call the science of learning, which is about how memory systems and attention systems work”.

We know a lot about that now, and yet when our teachers are trained, they’re not exposed to that information nearly enough and so they don’t get taught, during their training, the most effective ways of teaching literacy and numeracy and, again, this is the consequence.”

He also believes PLD should be a significant part of the solution: “Certainly, practicing teachers need to be given the information, knowledge, and skills to teach literacy and numeracy in the most effective ways. So yes, there is certainly a PLD component, but fundamentally we need to go back to teacher education and make sure that new teachers going through the system are prepared properly.”

 The Ministry’s timeline for new NCEA standards

“The new standards will be piloted for one more year before they become mandatory corequisites to NCEA in 2024,” according to Ms MacGregor-Reid.

“This means learners, schools and kura have an extra year to transition to the new standards. Over this time, the Ministry will be releasing further resources to support good teaching and learning of literacy and numeracy | te reo matatini me te pāngarau across the Curriculum. This is in addition to the resources that were released in March this year.” 

In 2022, she advised School News: “Over 200 schools, kura, and tertiary providers are piloting the standards and the results of the first assessment event this year will be provided to the students in late August.

“The results and evaluation for both 2022 assessment events will be released in the first quarter of 2023, noting that there is a much larger sample to understand national student achievement. Next year, we again expect more schools to use the standards.”

Delaying the implementation of these new standards, however, is “not going to make much difference”, according to Dr Johnston. “If they want to implement these standards for NCEA, and I think they should be implemented when the system is ready, but I don’t think we can do it now because far too many students would be shut out of qualifications.”

Rather, he recommends that the Ministry formulate a more immediate action plan: “They really should be saying, ‘yes we have a real problem and here’s what we’re going to do about it’.

“And they should’ve seen it coming. I mean, they really ought to know what the state of literacy is in our schools—they’re the premier agency responsible for implementing education policy in New Zealand, they ought to have a better idea than they seem to have.”

School leaders called to action: “Make it clear we need some reform”

“They need to talk to the Ministry of Education and make a bit of noise about it publicly,” Dr Johnston said:

Make it clear we need some reform because we shouldn’t be living with a situation where so many of our young people are coming through schooling without having learned to read and write and do basic numeracy properly. That should be the primary focus.

“I totally get the importance of making sure teachers are happy in their jobs, I think there’s far too much pressure on teachers in lots of different ways. But we’re letting young people down at the moment.”


Rosie Clarke

Rosie is the managing editor here at Multimedia Pty Ltd, working across School News New Zealand and School News Australia. She has spent 10+ years in B2B journalism, and has spent some time over the last couple of years teaching as a sessional academic. Feel free to contact her at any time with editorial or magazine content enquiries.
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