The NCEA Maths Exam Controversy – My Thoughts

One of the current “outrageous” news stories in New Zealand concerns the NCEA Level 1 algebra MCAT exam. There are complaints that the exam was too difficult (You can view the papers here). Parents and teachers have reported that students are distraught and have had their confidence shaken by the exam. The serially incompetent Minister of Education, Hekia Parata has declined to comment, passing the responsibility over to NZQA. At the moment, there is no information addressing the issue on the NZQA website. The Labour Education Spokesman, Chris Hipkins has expressed concern about this issue.

The article quotes one maths teacher who felt that the content of the exam was at the standard of NCEA Level 2. An academic from Victoria University of Wellington claims that the questions are “interesting and worthwhile”, but the students could have done with more time. Given that these are articles, the comments section is full of angry parents, the “suck it up” brigade and people proudly declaring that they don’t need maths. Since I don’t have an account on Stuff, I will add my thoughts on the matter here:

If the exam was set to a Level 2 standard, then this is a serious error. Having been through the NCEA system, there is a wide gulf between the concepts covered in Level 1 and Level 2. Students may not be aware of particular concepts, or may be unfamiliar with certain methods of working. While I would be comfortable answering most (or all) of the questions in the exam, I’ve had the benefit of many more years of mathematics experience than these students, who are only starting out with formal examinations. It is not unreasonable for students to anticipate something that is somewhat relevant to what they have studied in class. They shouldn’t be taught to just pass the test, but the exam content should be a realistic representation of the curriculum. I don’t think scaling the results will allay the emotional upset students may be feeling. A resit with content at the appropriate level may re-build confidence, however this appears to have been ruled out.

The real tragedy of this whole affair is that it will shape the attitudes of many of the affected students towards maths. It is likely that many will be put off maths for life. And society suffers when they do so. They could have been scientists, engineers or teachers; all of whom rely upon mathematics as a basic skill in order to carry out their work. They could have contributed towards humanity’s knowledge base, or developed technical solutions to the world’s problems. Without maths, they can’t do any of that.

Like their parents before them, they will make excuses such as “oh, I was never any good at maths” and travel along in life lacking an appreciation of the physical, chemical and biological processes that occur within our universe. I find it ironic that many people like to absorb “inspirational” messages like “never, ever give up!”, yet will do just that when maths starts to get too difficult!

I think education is a two-way street. Teachers should strive to present information in an easily understood manner and engage with students. At the same time students should make the effort to face topics that they fear or find difficult. Only by engaging with the gaps in their knowledge can they hope to fill them.

NZQA have let students down by setting an unreasonable standard in the L1 algebra MCAT assessment. But students must not let this dampen their enthusiasm for maths, for we shall all lose if they do.


2 thoughts on “The NCEA Maths Exam Controversy – My Thoughts

  1. I find it interesting that we only ever hear about complaints of exams being too difficult for maths exams. One might actually consider that the objective nature of maths problems makes it particularly easy to design problems of comparable difficulty. As I’m not familiar with the NCEA papers from past years, I can’t judge myself how much this years’ exams have been different.

    Another factor might be that there is very widespread social acceptance for struggling with maths, which I don’t think we have to that extent for other subjects such as say English (“it’s our language”), history (“it’s our heritage”), geography (“that’s general knowledge”) or PE (“try harder”).


    • Great comment. Perhaps the writer of the exam wanted to get students thinking about how to apply their knowledge in unexpected ways. Having tutored students in NCEA maths, I found that most of them are mainly adept in applying a method and not so confident in using this knowledge in unfamiliar situations. I was probably the same at that age. It was having to explain concepts as a tutor that gave me the chance to appreciate how knowledge can be used for curve-ball questions.

      NZ students don’t really learn much about logic or reason. If anything, it would be hidden away in the curriculum. I wonder if students were given logic/reason classes they could then apply reasoning to develop solutions to unfamiliar maths problems (at an equivalent level of difficulty)?


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