Digital Assessment Vision: a design principles approach

NZQA is transforming the way National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) external assessment is offered.

Our 21st century approach will build on the changes taking place in classrooms, with the knowledge that, when implemented effectively, this will improve student engagement in learning, achievement and readiness for higher education or employment and supports all students to be awarded a relevant and trusted credential.

21st century assessment must contribute to addressing equity of NCEA outcomes by engaging students in new ways, stimulating changes in teaching and learning, and providing new ways for students to demonstrate their application of knowledge.

Qualify for the Future World: Kia Noho Takatū Ki Tō Āmua Ao

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Why are we on this assessment transformation journey?

Digital assessment reflects the global, digital, connected world students today live in.

Paper-based end-of-year external examinations do not take advantage of 21st century innovative teaching and learning approaches and constrain students to be ready at a point in time, irrespective of their learning journey.

The move to digital assessment also provides an opportunity to improve the equity of NCEA outcomes for Māori and Pasifika students. This is through, for example, access to richer data available about their experience and different ways for capturing student responses.

Our vision allows a responsive and cost-effective approach for moving to digital assessment that is innovative, credible and robust.  The vision is less about a specific end point and more about a direction of travel and for NZQA, education leaders, teachers, students and education agencies to co-design the approach we want.

Digital Assessment Vision for NCEA Online

NCEA Online is delivering digital assessment transformation.

What will be happening when these six principles are in play as we move towards this future state? Decisions about the delivery strategy will be referenced back to these design principles for digital assessment services.

Assessment integrity:

Assessment enables credible, reliable and valid results and allows all students to authentically and securely display their application of knowledge, skills and abilities.

Psychometric analysis of results will help guide the transition and consider the potential effects of moving beyond the substitution model of assessment- where technology acts as a direct substitute for a paper assessment, with no functional change. The effect of this move may include the changed distribution of students across digital and paper and the potential impact of having comparable external assessments in both the substitution and further levels of assessment.

If external assessments become available on demand, they will require students to use a wider range of abilities such as critical thinking, collaboration and persistence than is possible today. It will require a change in marking approaches and psychometric analysis of results to show the difference between a student’s application of knowledge and other skills. This is so we can be sure we are assessing what we intend to assess against the achievement standard, including collected evidence in portfolios. 

A high integrity system aims to reduce inter-year variability. With the potential for more frequent internal assessment opportunities, intra-year variability will also need to be managed.  This will require adapting how markers and examiners mark different assessments and ensure student responses are falling within the expected range when smaller numbers of students undertake a given assessment. This work may be supported by artificial intelligence tools.

There will be opportunities to continuously improve assessments based on feedback loops shorter than the current 12-18 months. Faster feedback loops may drive the need for standards to be reviewed or exemplars to be refreshed more frequently and teaching approaches will need to be more agile to adapt without increasing workload.

Authenticity and security of the digital assessments, students’ responses and markers’ judgements will be managed over reliable, well-performing networks with back-up options, so students can be confident their digital identity and permissions, their work and their NCEA credentials are not compromised.

Te ao Māori:

Assessments will enable students to use Te Reo Māori and Mātauranga Māori in their assessment, maintaining validity and contributing to equitable NCEA outcomes.

Educators are prioritising the move towards personalised pathways for all students. As these become embedded in teaching and learning, NZQA’s NCEA external assessments will need to adapt. This represents a profound opportunity for assessment systems to support Māori students to reach their potential.

Personalised learning pathways that include digital assessment can engage 21st century Māori students in new more relevant ways to fully reflect cultural identity in their responses and will involve changes to how some questions are expressed. 

The aim of engaging Māori students and their teachers in the co-design is so we deeply understand their assessment experience and redesign it to ensure students succeed in external digital assessments at the same rate as their non-Māori counterparts and

These will include:

  • Continuing to have Te Reo translations of assessments
  • Students being able to respond in contexts relevant to their culture and experience, that reflect Te Ao Māori, incorporate Mātauranga Māori and when and where assessments are conducted
  • Assessment responses that apply or demonstrate knowledge rather than, or as well as, describing it
  • Collaborative engagement, where individual contributions can form part of the result
  • Reflecting manaakitanga towards students through the digital assessment look and feel, and user experience.

Digital assessment enables more flexible presentation, so the student is still applying or demonstrating their knowledge against the standard, while using their other abilities. It also supports multi-lingual (including Te Reo Māori) versions of the assessment content, the student response and the user experience (e.g. screens and templates).

Te Ao Māori is an important principle underpinning the vision to equitably serve Māori students while benefiting the wider assessment system. Digital assessment will ensure an equitable experience for Māori students if a 21st century approach is applied to its development, delivery practices and data analytics.

Accessibility and usability:

The user experience for participants – students, examiners, markers, supervisors, teachers – is accessible and intuitive; the effort to participate will be no greater than under current arrangements.

All participants in the assessment system will experience an overall reduction in the effort to participate, once familiarity is achieved and processes embedded. Accessibility and usability will be a part of the design process. Users will inform and co-create design decisions, with feedback supplemented by data gathered (e.g. time spent on a particular screen, number of attempts to complete an assessment task).

Examination development teams currently use online collaboration tools. Security of the electronic and paper forms of the examinations in the various stages of their lifecycle is closely managed. The key functions of examination development teams may not change but the supporting tools will, especially when multiple versions of the item are required.

We will balance the diversity of technology used by all digital assessment participants with minimum standards ensuring the user experience is predictable, reliable and supported by the assessment process. Some personalisation will be available to all users to enhance their experience where this does not compromise the overall integrity.

Assistive technologies (e.g. text to speech) will be available to students where this reflects how they learn. “Bring your own app” (e.g. for assistive technologies) will be supported.

Teachers using digital dashboards for tracking student progress will have a more accessible view of the students’ full capabilities and assessment performance, and will be able to extract data, saving time and enabling them to make better informed decisions when planning the personalised student learning pathways.

Markers will not have to worry about the physical security of written scripts, so they can work more efficiently online with access to advanced marking support tools. Their work will also be quality assured more efficiently. As noted in Digital First (below), there will be a future role for automated marking with human markers designing and quality assuring any automated marking. New professional development opportunities for teachers will arise in this context.

Supervisors will have powerful dashboard tools available to supplement their visual supervision of examinations. Students’ identity credentials, access and authorisation to sit an external assessment will be managed by their digital credential. This means supervisors will not be reliant on checking identity cards and paper examination slips. Over time, the logistics will adapt where students can be supervised in non-examination centre settings or monitored remotely.


Digital external assessment services evolve with student and school readiness and enable delivery modes and assessment types to develop in response to teaching and learning.

Just as NCEA has continued to evolve, NCEA Online will support an adaptive approach driven by the experience of students and teachers, at the pace that suits the sector, and informed by user insights and data.

Different techniques to elicit students’ responses could include creating or responding to simulations, or interactions with another student or an artificial intelligence engine to solve a problem. There is an opportunity to design assessments allowing students to use their “21st century” skills as well as applying their knowledge.

Where personalised learning pathways have been implemented, the timing of assessments may be driven by student readiness. With the opportunity to have more frequent or “anytime” assessment, teaching practices may be adapted faster, with students’ results available more quickly after the assessment.

In time, while security, authenticity and authorship of the student response will remain important for assessment integrity, we would have the means to introduce “open book” and remotely supervised assessments with digital technologies.

Digital assessment will be adaptable enough for students to personalise their experience where that does not compromise the assessment integrity.

Schools will be able to use the NCEA Online service to create assessments for internal use, or to deliver purchased digital practice assessments that comply with the information standards.  This means schools can do as much or as little online assessment as suits their approach.

Digital first:

External digital assessment services are designed for end-to-end digital-first delivery.

With the primary delivery of external assessment being digital, assessments will be designed for a digital experience. In the transition period, or for exceptional circumstances where paper-based processes are still required, there will be options.  

In a world of diverse devices, this will mean some compromises between features available only for “high spec” devices and those used by most.

Usability and accessibility features built into the design of assessments early are more likely to deliver a high-quality experience. With an adaptable service, changes can be incorporated more regularly, so the bar continues to rise.

Digital first will mean time and geographical constraints will cease to be relevant. The parts of the process requiring human input will be adapted to keep pace. This could mean more continuous access to examiners and markers throughout the school year, or some assessment question development and marking could be supported with or replaced by digital tool, and quality assured by examination development teams.

A digital first approach will entail marking responses online. While human judgement will remain critical, machine marking will have a future role, with human markers designing and quality assuring.  Notwithstanding the importance of the quality assurance, online marking will lead to students receiving results of external assessments more quickly, enabling them to move to their next learning step.

The pace of change in a digital first assessment approach will depend on  what students experience in their earning and the quality of the digital solutions.

Digital first in external assessment will complement the approach to internal assessment increasingly used in schools.

Data as an asset:

Digital external assessment services enable analytics which can be used to better inform assessment development as well as teaching and learning.

Digital assessment will generate significant data. The intent is to enable access (with appropriate privacy and security controls) to data about:

  • The users’ characteristics e.g. their demographics
  • Their experience e.g. in real time, or to analyse later, the time taken to complete specific questions
  • The operations and logistics; e.g. who is taking an examination, when, and where they are up to
  • Their results e.g. compared to students with similar and different characteristics at a minimum.

This data will help teachers reframe less successful teaching approaches, recognise new patterns in student achievement and support students to self-diagnose their learning strengths and gaps. It will also support more efficient quality assurance of examination development, marking and finalisation of results for credentials.

The data will follow the student beyond their schooling to support lifelong learning. Students will be able transform some of this data into verified achievement information that is reflected in their digital portfolios and badges.


See What we're reading for a selection of articles that have helped shape our thinking about the context for digital assessment.

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