NZQA exam disruptions spark frustration in education community

Teachers say their workload has “tripled” from dealing with extra demands, and say disruptions are leading to student breakdowns.

At the beginning of exam season, secondary schools experienced disruptions to a numeracy exam typically sat by Year 10s after the system was overloaded.

Some were prevented from sitting the exam for almost 40 minutes. In response, NZQA said that extra capacity would be put on for NCEA exams and it was known how many students would be sitting these tests.  

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However, just a week later, secondary students sitting Level One NCEA exams experienced disruptions due to similar overloading issues. Only those taking NCEA Level One English were affected.  

Students who experienced online disruptions were forced to take paper exams instead. AdobeStock by arrowsmith2.

As students logged on, the system began slowing. The authority had expected over 20,000 students to sit these exams but struggled to cope with 18,000.  

Jan Marshall, NZQA deputy chief executive said “extensive testing by our technology vendor gave NZQA confidence that this level of activity could be supported. 

“The system began to slow after more than 18,000 students had logged in, and a decision was made to stop further logins to guarantee the experience of these students.” 

Affected students were given paper copies of their exams, and derived grade applications for those experiencing disruptions and disadvantage are still being considered.  

“NZQA apologies for the disruption caused for some students and will continue to work with its technology vendor as they scale up the capacity of the system,” Marshall said. She added that NZQA is aiming to improve their forecasting of additional capacity needs, and notes that these exams represented “the first time NZQA has experienced such large numbers of students attempting to log in to these assessments simultaneously”.   

Thousands of students experienced disruptions. Photo: AdobeStock by Wong Hock Heng

Speaking to RNZ, teachers said they were unhappy with the disruptions. Association of Teachers of English vice-president Pip Tinning said the issues caused “anxiety” and “breakdowns”, which she described as “awful, absolutely awful and absolutely unacceptable.” 

Tinning noted that Level One was often the first set of big exams for students, “it’s a lot of pressure for a 15, 16-year-old kid to overcome.” 

One parent noted that the issues with online exams impacted students with special conditions. Their son, who has ASD and dyspraxia, was unable to sit the exam online despite qualifying for special exam support.  

“He can’t hold a pen for long as it becomes painful and his writing is very hard to read. 

“They have completely let down this [sic] kids who are already disadvantaged enough in their lives.”  

As exam season continues, education leaders are wary of repeat issues with the NZQA system. Otahuhu College principal Neil Watson told RNZ that their schools’ decision to opt out of online exams was due to issues such as this.  

“The unfortunate disruption this year for both the literacy and numeracy, and also Level One English says there’s still a fair bit of work to do on the engineering side to make sure the software can cater for what should have been easily predictable demand. 

“We’ve been reluctant to do it for that reason and also the equity issue around online assessment and that comes down to both the quality of devices being used, the access to WiFi you have at home – all these things impact on a student’s ability to access online learning.” 

Equity issues around online learning led some to decline participating in new online exams. Photo: AdobeStock by TommyStockProject

Acting PPTA Te Wehengarua president Chris Abercrombie called the disruptions “unacceptable,” stating that “running exams is NZQA’s core business. 

“These students have all been enrolled in these assessments for some months and it is incomprehensible that NZQA has not been aware of, and prepared for, the impact that many logins at the same time would have on the system. 

“These concerns have been well signalled by us throughout the pilots. With student numbers due to increase exponentially next year with the new Level 1 standards, to say we are disappointed is very much an understatement. 

“Students deserve better – as do teachers who have done all they can to help students prepare for the exam, only for technical problems to arise.” 

Abercrombie continued that PPTA members had signaled to the union that workload has “tripled” due to managing extra demands such as technical issues with NCEA exams.  

The PPTA sought an urgent meeting with NZQA as these disruptions unfolded. However, as of publication another large online exam for NCEA Level Two has happened without any more major disruption.  


Naomii Seah

Naomii Seah is a writer and journalist from Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland, Aotearoa New Zealand. She enjoys crochet, painting, and a coffee or two at the beach. Her work can be found at The Spinoff, The Pantograph Punch, Stuff, and of course, School News NZ.
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