Review of Achievement Standards (RAS) - Pilot Phase: Science

Closed 2 Mar 2020

Opened 2 Mar 2020

Results updated 11 Mar 2020


The Science Subject Expert Group (SEG) would like to thank members of the sector who responded to the Science draft products and especially for the suggestions of contexts for teaching and assessing. We heard from 698 people who contributed via 308 responses between December 2019 and 2 March 2020. The SEG greatly appreciates your input and will address as many of these ideas as possible.

We also want to signal the opportunity for schools to trial the new standards in 2021 from which we expect to gather a range of exemplars to support the sector.


The Review of Achievement Standards (RAS) Pilot Phase commenced on 1 October and will finish on 30 April 2020. It builds on the extensive consultation and co-design we conducted with all New Zealanders with an interest in NCEA during 2018 which resulted in the NCEA Change Package. These changes provide the mandate for the direction taken in the RAS. They will result in fewer, larger standards for all subjects, and in Science there is a greater emphasis at Level 1 on Big Ideas related to the Nature of Science and recognition of mātauranga Māori as an important indigenous knowledge system of relevance to all learners, but especially to ākonga Māori. 

Four subjects – Science, English, Visual Arts and Religious Studies - were selected to trial the development process ahead of the full-scale review planned to commence on 1 May 2020. Subject Expert Groups were established to develop new learning and assessment products and supporting resources for these subjects, and this work is being led by the Ministry.

The SEGs developed draft materials which we sought your feedback on and this is a summary of the feedback, with their responses. The feedback and results from the pilot phase will inform the process for all subjects at NCEA Levels 1-3.

Sample Course Outlines

Sample course outlines have been produced to help teachers and schools understand the new NCEA Learning and Assessment Matrices. We have three examples of how a year-long Science course could be constructed using the new Learning and Assessment Matrices. They are indicative only and do not mandate any particular choice of text or approach.

Sector feedback focussed on five main themes and these are addressed below.

Theme 1

Traditional science content is not obvious in the new Science products.

Many respondents sought greater clarity about what they should teach to prepare students for NCEA, especially when it comes to covering the breadth of science concepts across the contextual strands (physical world, material world, living world, and planet Earth and beyond). Others felt anxious about moving from relatively prescribed content in the existing Level 1 standards to a focus on higher level ideas about science (more akin to the Nature of Science strand in our Learning Area), which for some was seen as a shift toward a Social Sciences approach. There was anxiety that this matrix of standards would not prepare students for specialisation at Levels 2 and 3 and that it would not fulfil the ‘gatekeeping’ role for schools who currently use credit totals and specific standards as prerequisites for learning in specialist Science subjects and courses at Levels 2 and 3.


The expectation is that a wide breadth of knowledge ideas of science will have been covered up to NZC Level 6 by the time students are assessed at NCEA Level 1. The knowledge ideas in the Learning Matrix will have been covered during Years 9 – 11; we would not expect that Year 11 will be the first time they engage with these key ‘content’ ideas.

Understanding ‘content’ is distinct from, but necessary for, being capable of using science ideas to explain scientific phenomena. In further refining the standards the SEG undertakes to clarify the importance of using science knowledge to explain phenomena. The expected breadth of ideas of science (content) is contained in the Learning Matrix. It is impractical to specify content in these new standards but it is certainly the expectation that students will have been exposed to a broad range of content and that conceptual understanding relevant to the assessment context will be assessed. We need to remember that summative assessment should never test everything that is taught and learned – it is always a sampling process. Rather than assuming ‘if it is not assessed, it won’t be taught’ - a better approach is ‘teach broadly; assess narrowly.’

As educators we need to challenge the perception that only what is assessed will be taught by teachers and valued by students. Teachers are professionals with the best interests of their students at heart and this means they will continue to deliver programmes that address a broad range of content and contexts and NCEA Level 1. In turn, students pick up from their teachers the intrinsic value of the learning.

The sample Course Outlines show how knowledge and content can be woven throughout the year in a variety of contexts. These programmes also illustrate SEG thinking and address some of the concerns about content, scope, and logistics of collecting assessment evidence/material. We hope the sector can see from the sample programmes how they might adapt aspects of their current teaching units to work with the draft standards. The Teaching, Learning, and Assessment Guide (TLAG) (which was not available during phase 1 engagement) will provide further unpacking of content ideas and suggestions for approaches to teaching and learning and the sample assessment activities have also been developed further. 

The SEG’s brief from the Ministry of Education was to develop a general Science package for Level 1. The draft matrices offer a broad exploration of the key knowledge, skills, and capabilities that provide a sound, common foundation on which to build specialist studies in the sciences. This broad, common foundation has the potential to mitigate the trend heard often during public engagement in 2018 of students, particularly Māori and Pacific, being channelled into NCEA Level 1 Science courses that close or narrow pathways for them, rather than opening up pathways to further learning.

Theme 2  
Lack of examinations to assess the external standards, literacy demands of report-writing, teacher and student workload in formulating task and collating evidence for external assessments, and ensuring authenticity.


The sector was generally affirming of the important skills and capabilities identified in the draft AS 1.3 and 1.4, especially the latter, which deals with critically understanding scientific claims made in public communication.

In response to feedback from the sector and from NZQA on the draft external assessment briefs, the SEG has changed the approach to assessing both external standards to be a common assessment activity based on unfamiliar contexts and marked by NZQA. This will ensure greater objectivity – everyone can be more confident we are assessing the exact outcomes identified by the standards. It will also address issues of authenticity by removing the element of teacher coaching and scaffolding inherent in collecting evidence in school. The high literacy demands of report-writing are mitigated by the shift to an assessment style involving a mix of short and long answers, scaffolded to support student accessibility. Exemplars from school trials of these standards will support teachers to prepare students for this approach. 

One common assessment activity (probably AS 1.3) could be timed for late term 2.  Offering external assessment early in the year can provide students with an early opportunity to demonstrate their competence (of an aspect of science capabilities that is built up across years 9-11) and builds assessment confidence. It will also allow Science courses to be split into semesters.  

Assessment of AS 1.4 is likely to be timed for the end of year exam period to allow maximum time to practise the scientific communication skills and competencies required to effectively unpack scientific claims in a wide range of media.

Theme 3

Will students assessed via the new standards will be adequately prepared for Levels 2 and 3.


The NCEA Change Package identified the purpose of NCEA Level 1 as a broad exploration of the curriculum. Through 2018, sector feedback from the NCEA review clearly signalled a desire to retain Level 1 as an optional level – of particular significance to those in their final year of formal science learning.

The expectation is that the Significant Learning identified in the Science Learning Matrix will be covered to NZC Level 6 in the learning up to and including Year 11/ NCEA Level 1. Teachers of Level 2 specialist courses report that it is normal practise to reteach key concepts to correct misconceptions and fill gaps from Years 9-11; this is appropriate for moving to more specialised science studies. We expect teachers of general science to continue to develop their expertise in exploring the Nature of Science, and science capabilities and competencies across all strands the Science Learning Area.

The sector can expect that specialist Science Matrices at Level 2 and 3 will look far more familiar to teachers and it is appropriate that teaching and assessment will be more strongly focused on the strand-specific concepts and ways of working.

Theme 4  

Need greater clarification of certain terms and phrases used in the Science products, including terms relating to mātauranga Māori.


A glossary of terms will be built into the TLAG and further clarification will be provided within standards where appropriate. Examples of how to investigate within a Pūtaiao framework are being developed to support the sector. Exemplar activities and student work from school trials will serve to further illustrate the meaning of significant terms and approaches.

Theme 5  

Catering for transient students and ensuring continuity of topics covered and standards entered. 


This is an issue for all schools. Currently, when a student moves schools during their NCEA Level 1, there is considerable variability and risk in which of the 31 available science-related standards they are working towards.

Under the new standards, we envisage that students who move between schools will be better placed to engage in the externals – the capabilities required for both AS 1.3 and 1.4 will be transferable and are best developed by repeated practice across multiple contexts throughout the year, so are entirely transferable. If multiple opportunities for external assessment can be provided in the future, the risk of transience is further reduced.

Concerns about picking up and transferring learning related to the internals should be simpler than it currently is. Given only two internals, a collection of investigations can be carried with a learner to contribute to AS 1.1, and experiences engaging with one issue ought to be quite transferable to another for AS 1.2. In comparison, the high degree of choice amongst current internals makes transience a huge risk for learners.




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