A message from Nigel Mitchell,
Learning Area Lead English

One of the things the Ministry heard from the public engagement in 2018 was that teachers are having to spend too much time assessing, leaving too little time for teaching and learning. Teaching has become hamstrung by Achievement Standards. 

But what does that really look like? In a course where there are a lot of internals, it’s clear that there will be a lot of assessment, but the issue is actually more complex. We have allowed assessment to drive teaching and learning because we have come to see NCEA assessment tasks as teaching and learning. In a packed English programme, driven by standards, learning writing may be referred to as ‘doing 1.4 or 1.5’ and not learning how to:

  • [Use] an increasing understanding of the connections between oral, written, and visual language when creating texts
  • [Create] a range of increasingly varied and complex texts by integrating sources of information and processing strategies
  • [Seek] feedback and makes changes to texts to improve clarity, meaning, and effect
  • [Be] reflective about the production of own texts: monitors and self-evaluates progress, articulating learning with confidence


as set out in the indicators in the New Zealand Curriculum.


There is a fundamental principle here. Formative assessment as learning is good practice. Students need to be clear about what good looks like as they develop the skills and knowledge they need to be able to perform independently. Getting and using feedback is an essential part of that process. NCEA, however, is not formative assessment. It is a qualification that attests that a student is able to independently demonstrate that they have reached a standard. That distinction has become blurred. 

Another consequence of programme design driven by Achievement Standards is that the pressure to gain credits often overshadows meaningful learning opportunities. It can be hard for students to engage in something if it isn’t worth credits. Lowering the number of standards available in a course to 4 is how the review of NCEA is addressing both these issues. The Learning Matrix is designed to highlight what is essential in an English programme: that students are able to enjoy engaging the reading and production of text as who they are. That they are able to use language with control. That is what our courses should be built on. The standards should assess that learning. 

Our Mini Pilot schools are doing the hard work now to test this. In the process they are experiencing disruption, as you would expect – some of it liberating and some of it difficult. They are also giving the Ministry and NZQA clear feedback on what works and what doesn’t. We are listening and working in partnership with NZQA to make improvements so that the main pilot schools have a tested set of standards and tasks to work with next year, and so that we are certain we have the best set of standards to allow a focus on curriculum first when the standards are implemented in 2023. 

But fundamental to any real change is the ability to let go of the idea of the assessment-activity-as-unit-plan and to refocus on learning first. Take a moment to step back and think about what that might look like in your programme. What pressures are you currently under that take away your ability to really engage students in rich learning? If achievement standards didn’t exist, what would your programme consist of? 

The next couple of teacher-only days (August and November) will give you more time to plan for the new assessment environment. Start with the Learning Matrix and then work through how Achievement Standards could assess students when they are ready. We’re constantly fine tuning the standards throughout both pilot processes so they will evolve and change throughout the process. What won’t change is the fundamental essence of the English curriculum. 

Nigel Mitchell

English Learning Area Lead
Ministry of Education