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Post date: Tuesday, 5 December 2023

The testing dilemma: The unintended consequences of NCEA’s new literacy and numeracy co-requisite

By Charles Darr 

The incoming NCEA co-requisite could do more harm than good in its current form.  

From 2024 students must achieve a co-requisite in literacy and numeracy|te reo matatini me te pāngarau to be awarded an NCEA qualification, at any level.  The co-requisite requires students to pass online tests which can be retaken multiple times. 

On the face of it, the idea of a test-based co-requisite might look like a good way to deal with the pressing need to raise our literacy and numeracy standards. 

Disturbingly, however, the results from three years of pilot testing show that many students will struggle to pass the tests and hence jeopardise their chances of achieving NCEA. For instance, in June this year, only 56 percent passed the numeracy and writing tests and 64 percent the reading test (see the table below)**. These proportions would have varied across schools. At some schools they would have been much lower. 

NCEA literacy and numeracy pilot test results 


2021 (%) 

JUNE 2022 (%) 

SEPT 2022 (%) 

JUNE 2023 (%) 

















Compared to other school-based qualifications programmes globally, the National Certificate of Education (NCEA) stands out for its underpinning belief that all students should be able to achieve. There is no suggestion, unlike in previous systems, that a particular pass-rate should be enforced. By the time they leave school, the vast majority of students have achieved at least NCEA Level 1 or equivalent and most have achieved Level 2. 

Given the results of the pilot, it is imperative that we consider the consequences of including the co-requisite as part of NCEA. We need to ensure that while working towards higher standards, we also foster an environment that promotes engagement and success for every learner. 

What are the potential consequences? 

The pilots show that many students will either have to repeat the tests several times or put off attempting them until they have reached a level of readiness. This will take time and is likely to distract these students from other critical parts of their NCEA programmes. It could also negatively impact their confidence and willingness to engage in learning.  

No doubt, schools will look to dedicate resources to more remedial work. The danger here is that this will be focussed on ‘teaching to the test’. This kind of learning is often temporary and hard to apply in real contexts. There is also limited resourcing available for the one-to-one or small group approaches needed for remedial programmes. School boards will have to decide whether funding for these kinds of activities replaces funding for other priorities. 

The demands of the new arrangements will also put pressure on schools to stream classes. Streaming often has the opposite effect to what is intended, closing off pathway opportunities for those in lower stream classes and stigmatising them as less able. 

These consequences won’t affect everyone equally. The group of students most likely to experience the issues outlined above are those who already struggle in our education system. These include students from low socio-economic backgrounds and those who have complex learning characteristics, such as dyslexia and dyscalculia. 

What should we do? 

Our education system must do more to help students develop foundational literacy and numeracy skills. Introducing high stakes tests as a co-requisite for our national school qualification system, however, is not the answer. If we want to use assessment processes to support better literacy and numeracy, we must do so in a way that ensures both rigorous standards and allows all students to have their achievements recognised.  

Below are some possible assessment steps that could be taken to achieve this. 

  1. Decouple the assessment of literacy and numeracy from NCEA to ensure fair recognition of what a student has achieved in their NCEA programme. 
  2. Offer literacy and numeracy assessments that students can do to add a numeracy and or literacy standard to their record of achievement. 
  3. Ensure that there is an appropriate assessment approach to literacy and numeracy certification for all students. Some students need appropriate accommodations to access literacy and numeracy tests, and others do not do well in formal test conditions. A wider range of assessment approaches would provide greater opportunity for students to demonstrate their competencies and have them recognised. 
  4. Provide online practice assessments that schools could use formatively. These could include assessments that use AI to automatically score the assessments and provide feedback to students. 
  5. Review the suite of other NCEA standards to ensure that appropriate literacy and numeracy demands are part of these standards. Students who achieve NCEA standards in mathematics and English|te reo Māori and pāngarau, for instance, will have foundational literacy and numeracy skills. 

We must also remember that when it comes to raising literacy and numeracy standards, assessment can’t do all the ‘heavy lifting’. We also need effective curriculum supports and professional learning programmes for teachers focused on these core competencies. 

It isn’t too late to make the necessary changes 

The results of three years of pilot testing, have provided unequivocal evidence that many students are going to struggle to meet the demands of the co-requisite. As has been argued, this could disrupt their learning, damage their willingness to engage as learners, and threaten their chances of gaining an NCEA qualification. Moreover, the new arrangements have the potential to hurt our most vulnerable learners the most. We can't overlook this. It's crucial to revisit our approach, ensuring we maintain high standards but also prioritise the success and wellbeing of all students. The new co-requisite system needs a comprehensive review before it becomes a permanent fixture. 


Note: Recognising the challenges of transitioning to the new tests, the Ministry of Education has provided an alternative assessment pathway for 2024 and 2025. However, this will be phased out by 2026. 


[**] It would not be surprising if these percentages overestimate the pass rate. For instance, some schools will not have included all learners in the pilots and not all schools would have taken part.


You obviously have not looked at the bigger pictire with this blog. NCEA standards DID include Numearcy and Literacy as part of the standard but it wasn't working as students could gain numeracy by standards that covered the same skill mutliple times and without knowing a range of skills. They were removed and made stand alone requirement so that it ensure studetns were able to demonstrate a range of skills, not just one. Previosuly the students were required to pass at NC level 6. This has been lowered to Level 4 but must cover a range of different topics. The inital concept was that this was a checker to see if stidents were ready to work at L6 of the Curriculum by assessing them at L4. The fact students struggle with L4, they are definately going to struggle with L6. Would you allow a person to move on to learning to drive a bus or lorry if they have not yet passed their driving test in a car? NZQA have clearly stated this is still a trial period where the type of questions asked are being adjusted. The reason students struggle is they are not yet working at the required Curriculum level. Whilst we keep ignoring that fact and blaming the test we are not going to go foward. We will keep making excuses for the students finding it challenging. We rarely, if ever, hear people say "Oh, I can't read or write and I'm fine". Quote often people are quite happy to say "I can't do maths, I can live with out it' yet here we are lamanting the fact students are strugging. A big shift is needed in society across all areas for a real change to happen. Until the wider population stop making it acceptable for mathematics to be unimporant then we are going to struggle. Blaning the testing is not the answer for improving numeracy and literacy.

I'm a Mathematics teacher, so my experience only relates to the Numeracy aspect of the co-requisites. What I have seen is that the assessment is actually quite well-designed. The skills and knowledge that are needed to pass it translate to real-world competencies. In an ideal world, students should all finish Year 8 working at Curriculum Level 4. We would then have the next 18 months to progress them through Level 5, and into 6, so that they have the appropriate skills and knowledge to pass the new Numeracy assessment (as the first round of assessments happens halfway through Year 10). The problem that we are facing, however, is that the majority of students are coming into Year 9 at Curriculum Level 2 and 3. It is impossible for us to get them through to Level 5/6 in such a short amount of time. I think that if students are required to pass these types of standardised tests in secondary school, we need to ensure they are on the right track earlier in their schooling. The reality is that too many students enter secondary school without the foundational skills required to properly succeed in mathematics.

I have been working with numeracy questions with yr 9s. The language used is often "adult" (using terms or items unfamiliar to children) or archaic (as the bird flies). Some of the questions appear to act as traps to catch the unwary. This is not fair.

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