Amicus Curiae: The Ethnicity Gap in Education

By Isabel Ko

NZQA was slammed recently over a ‘far too difficult’ maths exam that left numerous students in tears. In light of this matter, it is necessary to address the questions surrounding the competency of NCEA examinations and its correlation with student pass rates.

NCEA was introduced in 2002, replacing the School Certificate, Sixth Form Certificate and Bursary with NCEA Levels 1, 2 and 3. NCEA differed from the old system in the sense that it allowed much more flexibility where practical skills and academic knowledge could both be counted towards a student’s qualification. However, it has been proven that NCEA’s flexibility is its greatest strength, as well as its greatest weakness. Its flexibility can be used to recognise and accentuate strengths to open more doors for students, or it can consequently be used to “pigeonhole kids” and limit their pathways.

This is particularly evident where participation in specific standards can actually hinder a student’s future instead of advancing it. For example, in the case of mathematics, most secondary schools do not allow students to progress from Level 1 to a more advanced course if they haven’t passed certain algebra standards. Thus, the students who find algebra hard may drop it and instead take alternative maths courses made up of unit standards. The consequence? These unit standards do not count towards gaining university entrance, and these students then either miss out getting into tertiary education, or would have to take alternative ‘Uni Prep’ courses to gain entrance to their desired degree. Unfortunately, if students take the latter option, it means more money on their student loans, more time at university, and it results in more pressure on the student as well as their families.

Unfortunately, this kind of phenomenon is more apparent among those in low-decile schools, especially Maori and Pasifika students. Accordingly, data shows that although the number of students gaining NCEA Level 2 hit a record at 83.5% (only 1.5% below the 85% target), Maori, Pasifika and low-decile students were getting a different kind of NCEA experience compared to students from more affluent Pakeha and Asian backgrounds.

Official statistics on all standards sat in every subject for 2015 show that:

  • Maori, Pasifika and low-decile students were less likely to take academic subjects compared to Pakeha, Asian and high-decile students.
  • When these students did take academic subjects they were less likely to pass.
  • They were less likely to sit exams, and when they did, their marks were less likely to include "Merit" or "Excellence" grades
  • Maori, Pasifika and low-decile students were more likely to be enrolled in "vocational" subjects, which were not university-approved

Further statistics indicated that for Maori students, the amount of students taking the ‘more’ academic standards declined steeply depending on the decile ranking of their schools. For example, in science at NCEA Level 2, entries for decile 10 Asian students were 30%, whereas the entry rates for Maori students at decile 1 were only at 8%. On the other hand, for those enrolled in NCEA Level 2, decile 1 Maori students were about four times more likely than decile 10 Pakeha students to take vocational subjects in the ‘service sector’ – subjects including hospitality, tourism and retail.

It is also very necessary to recognise that there is nothing wrong with taking vocational subjects such as hospitality or tourism. However, it has been proven that these subjects do not tend to give students the deeper education benefits pertinent to evaluation and critical thinking when compared to subjects such as Physics, English and Mathematics. Nonetheless, this does not mean that the NCEA has been pointless to these students. Rather, pass rates grew by more than 10% in five years to 83.5% – Maori and Pasifika achievement increased the most despite still remaining below other ethnicities.

These statistics all point to one obvious conclusion: Maori and Pasifika students are less likely to pass in academic subjects compared to other ethnicities. The consequence? These students are unfortunately less prepared for further studies, such as attending university or polytechnics. Hence, this may be the reason why there is a lower proportion of Maori and Pasifika students undertaking STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects.

Without the required momentum for these students during high school to encourage their enrolment into subjects classified as ‘more academic’, it is arguably harder for them to excel in their studies at the time . This can lead students to dead ends where the courses that they take simply do not allow for them to transition to any kind of further study.

Although this educational injustice between differing ethnicities has built up over the years, NZQA and the Ministry of Education have made steps towards remedying the issue. NZQA have announced the ‘Future State Programme’ where they have implemented a multi-year programme to help and ensure students to qualify for a future that is increasingly global and digitally connected. Their vision is for all Maori students to ‘qualify for the future world,’ and thus prepare students to thrive in a rapidly evolving, innovative, technology mediated world. As a part of their goal, NZQA aims to: “to partner with education system agencies to support a 50% lift of Māori and Pasifika student achievement at NCEA level 3 in one or more standards in STEM subject related areas by 2020.” As a way to achieve these goals, NZQA have announced 3 targets:

  • 1500 more Māori students participating in NCEA Level 2
  • More Māori students participating in NCEA Level 3, and
  • More students participating in STEM related tertiary pathways

The problem with NCEA and the lack of preparation given to Maori, Pasifika and low-decile students compared to their more affluent peers show that although NCEA aims to represent equality in education, it does not necessary present an equitable outcome. NCEA represents equality in the sense that NCEA courses are available to every student. The same external examination is given at the end of the year, and they all follow the same marking schedule. However, it fails to put every student on the same playing level – there are students from different socio-economic backgrounds and ethnicities producing different results across the whole of New Zealand. Perceptions of “just another brown kid trying to get into Uni” need to be addressed.

Maori, Pakeha, Pasifika and Asian. High decile and low decile. These should not determine the future of these students. It is hard to avoid that fact that these labels will have an impact on how these students get there in the end but it should not determine their final destination.

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