Factsheet # 6: NCEA provides flexibility so that the needs of all students can be met

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Schools can use the flexibility of NCEA to engage and motivate all students.Together, the achievement standards and unit standards used by schools cover all curriculum subjects as well as many vocational areas – but as they are all separate standards, they can be used in any combination.

Schools are finding many ways to use the flexibility of NCEA. Of course, a lot depends on a school’s resources, the number of students it has and how flexible it can make its timetable.

  • Schools can offer whole 'subjects' in the traditional way – or they can develop courses to suit the needs of their students. In either case they can select relevant standards for assessing their courses.
  • Schools can vary the amount of content covered by a course, and adjust the assessment load accordingly. There are no centrally prescribed constraints.
  • At each level in each curriculum subject, a course will be assessed using a mix of standards that total between 18 to 24 credits – but schools can and do run courses that cover any number of credits.
  • Completion of an NCEA qualification is not constrained by a one-year timeframe. More able students can complete an NCEA qualification in less than a year, while other students may need more than a year to obtain a qualification.


More able students can be assessed against higher level standards.

In English, for example, the teacher could set a writing task and assess students against Level 1, or 2 standards, depending on their ability.

More able students who work at a faster pace can earn credits at higher levels. In mathematics, for example, students can complete their study (and internal assessments) for Level 1 standards, and then make a start on some Level 2 standards.

There is no need for students to study at the same level in each of their subjects. A student who is very good at mathematics but not so good at English could be in courses that offer Level 2 credits in mathematics and Level 1 credits in English.

Many schools also provide opportunities for able students to complete university papers alongside their NCEA assessments while still at school.

Breadth and style of learning

Exploring new subjects can help students make connections between disciplines – this can be especially beneficial for highly able students. Learning skills in different contexts can stimulate learning, and breadth of learning can open pathways beyond school.

Students who work quickly and successfully in history, for example, could extend their studies to aspects of art history or classical studies and earn credits in those areas.

Schools can be even more innovative.They can integrate content across subjects – for example, film with literature, history with geography. They can teach and assess some skills in relevant contexts - writing in the context of history, or statistics in economics, or some aspects of mathematics in technology.

In 2007, the New Zealand Council for Educational Research (NZCER) asked 194 schools about course innovation in the senior secondary curriculum. 94% gave examples of some sort of innovation. For example, using achievement standards from different levels in the same subject, or mixing standards across traditional subject boundaries.

  • 67% used achievement standards from the same learning area but from different NCEA levels within courses. Examples covered every curriculum learning area.
  • 11% mixed achievement standards from different learning areas for assessment within courses.
  • 75% of schools ran at least one course assessed by standards (some including unit standards) from more than one level, most commonly English and Level 1 and 2 mathematics.

The NZCER report stressed that innovative course design is important for students at all ability levels:

"It is important not to assume that such course innovation is only for 'less able' students. This snapshot provides evidence that the needs of high achievers are also being catered for in many instances of course innovation..."

"Designing context-rich courses often means a degree of curriculum integration because the real world does not conform neatly to historical subject divisions. For example, a course called “Writing for Publication”... models the integration of achievement standards from different learning areas to combine aspects of traditional subjects that logically come together in a highly relevant context with strong links to real-world settings. "

Course innovation in the senior secondary curriculum: A snapshot taken in July 2007. Rose Hipkins, New Zealand Council for Educational Research

Comments from the sector

"Kaitaia College has introduced two different approaches – one has grouped standards across subject areas; the other uses an historical context to assess students against standards from several subject areas. For example, if Apartheid is being studied in History there are standards available in Social Studies, Information Management and English that could be assessed as a 'bundle'."

"Head of History and Year 11 Dean, Michael Withiel says the courses emerged when he identified some overlap with assessment in different subjects. Mr Withiel says the combined courses are making a very big impact on the students. 'All together, these factors will make a very big difference to the success that students will want to achieve and will dovetail to give impetus to aspire to higher attainment. This will give students more chance of gaining entrance to the tertiary courses of their choice.'"

NZQA QA News December 2010 Issue 70


"Our family absolutely loved the NCEA approach.The workload in regular classes wasn’t unreasonable and our son was challenged appropriately. He likes to show up as being smart so he had to work hard - but his results really do reflect his actual achievements, not a whole lot of other factors. The whole NCEA experience prepared my son for what came next in a way that a foreign examination would not have done. I’m a big proponent of NCEA - it makes happier adults."

Jonny Newbre, mother of Alex Hayashi left Rangitoto College in 2007 and, later accepted at University of California, Berkeley

The learning experience

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