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Curriculum Choices: The Exams

SEP 14, 2020 • 9 min read

Love it or hate it, everyone has strong opinions about exams and assessments. The exams and assessments you do differ greatly by what curriculum you choose to study. You are likely familiar with the Cambridge A Levels (CAIE, formerly CIE), the International Baccalaureate (IB), and the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA). You may not, however, be familiar with Edexcel A levels. This is an alternative A Level qualification, offered by Crimson Online Academy (CGA), NZ’s first fully certified online high school. Choosing the qualification with the assessment structure that best suits your learning style will help you get the grades necessary for admission into top universities and set you up for your dream career. Here at CGA, we have created a blog series to help you understand the differences of these four educational systems. In this blog, we will be looking at the methods of assessment each educational system uses and which students best fit each system. Understanding assessments is the most important part of choosing a qualification pathway as it will have big implications for winning prestigious scholarships further on down the road.

Let’s start with IB. IB has only one set of external examinations that students take at the end of Grade 12 (US), Year 12 (AUS), or Year 13 (UK/NZ) on all six subjects with internal assessments spread throughout the two final years of high school. These contribute to a small fraction of their final grade, and although internals help lower the stakes of the externals, the fact that students are assessed on materials from two years of learning all at once can be extremely stressful. These high-stakes exams will be on top of trying to apply for university and sitting NZQA Scholarship examinations at the end of Year 13, backloading all the work. Taking exams at the end of your final year also means that you only have one opportunity to do well on your exams, with no opportunity to resit should those exam-day nerves get the better of you. Each of the 6 subjects in IB are graded 1-7 and the EE and ToK grades are combined to produce a score of Fail/0-3. These individual scores are added together to get the students’ IB diploma score out of 45.

Edexcel and Cambridge A levels are also split up over two years: the AS level in the first year and the A2 level in the second year. However, students’ grades are only determined by the external exams they sit at the end of Year 12 for AS and Year 13 for A2 with no internal assessments. The final A level grade is the average of your AS and A2 on a letter grade scale of Fail/ E, D, C, B, A, A*. While Cambridge offers external exams twice a year, Edexcel offers its exams three times every year. This gives plenty of opportunities to resit subjects where you feel you have the potential to improve your score. Furthermore, Edexcel’s modular subject structure allows you to resit individual papers instead of entire subjects like in Cambridge. For example, Edexcel Maths is split up into two papers: Pure Maths and Statistics. If a student were to score highly on the Statistics paper but achieved a lower score than they were hoping for on the Pure Maths paper, Edexcel would allow them to resit just the Pure Maths paper in the next exam session. This is a clear advantage over Cambridge, which would require the student to restudy for, and resit, both papers if the student wanted a better grade. Given a single higher grade can be the difference between admission and rejection to a top university, this flexibility to resit subjects is highly important.

Edexcel’s mark scheme is also more granular than that of Cambridge, meaning that it is better at separating mid and high achieving students. This is perfect for students wanting to signal their academic ability to the most competitive universities. I loved taking A levels because not having internals means that I have the time to have fun with the content without the stress of biweekly assessments that count towards my final grade. It also suited my time-demanding extracurricular schedule of participating in two International Science Olympiads and playing on the school Premier tennis and volleyball teams. CGA gives even further flexibility on top of all this by adjusting to your weekly schedule to help you get the most out of your education.

In NCEA, skills and knowledge are assessed against a number of achievement standards. For example, a Mathematics standard could require students to apply trigonometric methods in solving problems. Regular internal assessments and external exams at the end of each year are used to measure how well students meet these standards – with no opportunities for resits in the external exams. When a student achieves a standard, they gain a number of credits. Students must achieve a certain number of credits to gain an NCEA certificate – 80 in the case of NCEA Level 3, with 20 of those credits allowed to be carried up from Level 2. Each NCEA standard is given one of four grades: Not Achieved, Achieved, Merit or Excellence and these grades apply to the credits that the students are awarded. Students can be “endorsed” with Merit or Excellence both at the subject level and at the certificate level. Students need 14 credits of Merit or Excellence in a single subject (out of 18-25 credits dependent on school and subject) to be endorsed in that subject with Merit or Excellence. To get overall endorsed with Merit or Excellence, students need to achieve 50 credits with Merit or Excellence. This means there isn’t really much differentiation of students at the top as there are no numerical grades given. Furthermore, unlike A levels or IB, NCEA grading is very subjective and varies greatly due to its heavy emphasis on internal assessment. Often, the requirement to achieve Excellence in Standards is “demonstration of mastery over the material.” Teachers end up having different definitions of “mastery,” resulting in inconsistent grading patterns. This leaves many students who take NCEA confused and frustrated as they do not know exactly what they need to do to achieve an Excellence grade. Frequent internals combined with NCEA’s focus on covering every detail of a narrow segment within each subject means that students tend to be more focused on studying to the test, especially in STEM classes, rather than retaining the information needed for further studies.

No matter whether you’re in your final years of school or are just starting to decide which high school curriculum is best for you, if you’re looking for the support you need to get into a top international university, we can help!

Crimson Global Academy offers both full-time and part-time enrolment options, so whether you want to stay enrolled in your current school and supplement your core studies with additional Pearson Edexcel International A Levels, or you’re looking to join a school where you can take unlimited International A-Levels and can accelerate your learning far beyond your peers, we have an option for you. With dedicated teaching staff averaging 20+ years of teaching experience and a streamlined online learning platform, CGA will give you all the resources you need to (ed)EXCEL in your schooling. Download our prospectus to find out more about all the IGCSE subjects that CGA has to offer, and talk to us today about whether CGA could be right for you!

Enjoyed this blog? If you want to learn more about the differences between Pearson Edexcel, Cambridge, IB and NCEA, check out this blog where we discuss the international recognition of each examining board, and this article where we discuss the content covered in each qualification.

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