University Entrance: always a bridesmaid?

October 2016


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DR JOHN BOEREBOOM says University Entrance (UE) has always been the bridesmaid of the New Zealand secondary school qualifications. In this article he questions whether the present requirements for entry into universities are fair and valid.


John BGenerally, eligibility for entrance to New Zealand universities is controlled by the University Entrance (UE) qualification, which is administered by the New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA). Universities often impose additional requirements for competitive selection into limited entry programmes. In particular, universities set various rank score requirements for performance in the best 80 credits at Level 3 of the New Zealand Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA). Entry into some programmes or year 1 courses may also require special prerequisites in terms of students’ performance in specified NCEA Level 3 subjects or Achievement Standards.

The present structure of UE evolved as a result of a major paradigm shift in assessment for New Zealand school qualifications from a norm-referenced system to a standards-based system.

Prior to the introduction of the current Level 1–3 NCEA, the senior secondary school qualifications in New Zealand in year 11–13 consisted of School Certificate, Sixth Form Certificate, and University Bursary. For each of these qualifications student achievement in a year-long course was represented by a single global grade. This enabled students to be easily ranked and compared. Entry to university required an A or B Bursary, or three C grades or higher in University Bursary subjects. In addition, students needed Higher School Certificate as evidence of the completion of five years of secondary schooling.

The NCEA is the main secondary school qualification in New Zealand. It was introduced at Level 1 in 2002 and fully implemented at Level 3 in 2004. NCEA is a standards-based qualification comprising internally and externally assessed Achievement Standards and Unit Standards, which have a credit value. Student performance against the standard is reported using a Not Achieved, Achieved, Merit or Excellence grade.

The transition from a norm-referenced to a standards-based national assessment system required NZQA to reformulate the requirements for entry to university. Currently the requirements for entrance to New Zealand universities consist of completion of NCEA Level 3, including at least 14 credits in each of three subjects selected from a list of NZQA approved subjects. In addition, students need to have completed 10 credits at Level 2 or above of literacy (five credits in reading and five credits in writing) and 10 credits at Level 1 or above of numeracy.

NZQA is currently reviewing the current University Entrance requirements to “ensure they are working as intended and are relevant and up to date”.

The current numeracy requirement of 10 credits at Level 1 or above seems insufficient as a preparation for successful study at a New Zealand university.

International comparisons show that starting in 2017 the requirements for admission to a German university for students who completed their secondary schooling in New Zealand has been raised to “14 credits in mathematics or calculus made up of seven credits at Level 3 and seven credits at Level 2 or above” (Assessment matters, 2015).

The current literacy requirements for UE are 10 credits at Level 2 or above, including five credits in reading and five credits in writing. On the surface this seems adequate. However, there has been a gradual expansion of the Achievement Standards, which can contribute credits towards meeting the literacy requirement.

It is difficult to see how some of these standards can be used to demonstrate reading and writing skills. Examples are ‘Chemistry 91387: Carry out an investigation in chemistry involving quantitative analysing’, which predominantly involves students in practical work and graphing and tabulating data. Another example is ‘Drama 91517: Perform a substantial acting role in a significant production’. While both of these standards involve reading and writing, it is difficult to argue that this prepares students adequately for writing an essay or a report at first-year university level. A tightening of the range of standards that contribute to the literacy requirement would enhance the predictive validity of UE.

The disappearance of norm-referenced scores and the new University Entrance regulations required universities to develop a new mechanism for selection of students for entry into limited entry programmes. This was somewhat problematic since it is difficult to rank students in a standards-based system when students present with a Record of Learning that contains a multitude of A, M and E grades. A process was needed for the conversion of NCEA grades into numerical grades that could be aggregated into a single indicator.

This led to the pragmatic adoption of the NCEA rank score for the best 80 credits, which is currently used by some universities as a selection tool for programme entry.

Students applying to study at university are allocated a rank score based on their best 80 credits at Level 3 or higher over a maximum of five approved subjects and 24 credits per subject, weighted by the level of achievement attained in each set of credits. The maximum rank score is 320. The weightings used to calculate the rank score are shown in the table below.


UNI entrance table 


There are several challenges to the validity of the NCEA rank score as a selection tool for entry and as a predictor for future academic achievement.

Prioritising credits that are attained with excellence in the calculation can cause a disproportionate contribution of a single subject to the NCEA rank score. This limits its usefulness as a predictor for academic success in a broader range of first-year university courses.

The weightings allocated to A, M and E grades in the NCEA rank score are arbitrary. The proportions of students gaining A, M or E grades vary from subject to subject. Some subjects are more difficult than others. The number of students gaining excellence may be lower and consequently these subjects do not contribute equally to the NCEA rank score. Internally and externally assessed achievement standards are treated equally in the rank score calculation, even though the proportion of students gaining excellence in internally assessed standards is generally higher.

The rank entry score is only based on Level 3 NCEA grades and does not include a compulsory student attainment requirement in the literacy and numeracy components of University Entrance, even though these skills are vital for successful study at university.

In addition to the requirements for programme entry, universities often have NCEA prerequisites  for entry into particular courses. For instance, at Victoria University (2017) entry to MATH 177 requires at least 16 AS credits in NCEA Level 3 mathematics or statistics, including AS 3.6 (differentiation, AS91578) and 3.7 (integration, AS91579). There are differences between universities in the way the rank score is calculated and applied and prospective students need to study the requirements carefully.

Clearly the present NZQA award of University Entrance is inadequate for universities to use as a standalone tool for determining entry to university and needs to be supplemented by the use of the NCEA rank score and course and programme entry requirements that vary from university to university.

The NCEA rank score for the best 80 credits may be a reliable tool for ranking students but lacks validity because it does not provide a balanced representation of students’ abilities in the courses for which they are applying and ignores the vital literacy and numeracy components of UE.

Since the days of getting UE accredited, University Entrance has always been the bridesmaid of the New Zealand secondary school qualifications. It is underpinned by an inadequate numeracy requirement and convoluted literacy requirements and lists of approved subjects. It is poorly understood by students and parents and is constantly under review.

The following quote from the NZQA website shows how convoluted the requirements have become: “Where standards count for either Reading or Writing, an individual student may not count credits for both Reading and Writing. Nevertheless, it is possible to split a standard to satisfy the requirement for at least four credits in Reading and at least four credits in Writing.”

University Entrance is irrelevant to employers and universities have had to supplement it by introducing rank score requirements that are useful for selection but often invalid for specific programmes.

It is time for NZQA to abolish University Entrance and replace it with a more simplified and transparent system that does not need a website to explain it.

The obvious answer is to use NCEA Level 3, which “is designed to: acknowledge achievement across a range of learning fields, particularly those identified in The New Zealand Curriculum and Te Marautanga o Aotearoa, and to attest to minimum levels of literacy and numeracy”. This would show faith in the robustness of NCEA and allow it to come of age.

Universities can then set prerequisites for specific courses and programmes, based on attainment in Achievement Standards which are relevant to the proposed course of study and are a more useful and valid indicator of the likelihood of success in the proposed course of study.

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