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How to understand NCEA

Not sure how NCEA works? Find out how credits add up to qualifications, Background to NCEA, how the system works, and what you can do as a parent

What is NCEA?

Student in a technology class at school.
Students' work is assessed internally and externally
  • NCEA stands for National Certificate of Educational Achievement.
  • NCEA is the national qualification system for New Zealand's senior secondary school students.
  • It is made up of three certificates at Levels 1, 2 and 3 and usually studied in Years 11, 12 and 13.
  • NCEA qualifications are part of the New Zealand Qualifications Framework (NZQF).

What is the NZQF?

The NZQF is a framework of nationally endorsed standards and qualifications. It is made up of 10 levels, with Level 1 the most basic qualifications and Level 10 the most complex. Qualifications are assigned to a level on the scale depending on the difficulty of the skills or knowledge learned.

Qualifications fit into the framework as follows:

  • Levels 1-7 are national certificates.
  • Levels 5-7 are national diplomas.
  • Levels 7-10 are national degrees and postgraduate qualifications.

How does NCEA fit into the New Zealand Qualifications Framework?

NCEA is part of the New Zealand Qualifications Framework (NZQF). NCEA Levels 1, 2 and 3 are Levels 1, 2 and 3 of the NZQF. Secondary school students generally study at these levels. Levels 4 and above are usually studied after finishing school.

How do NCEA levels compare with School C etc?

  • NCEA Level 1 is usually studied in Year 11. It replaces School Certificate.
  • NCEA Level 2 is usually studied in Year 12. It replaces Sixth Form Certificate.
  • NCEA Level 3 is usually studied in Year 13. It replaces Bursary.
  • The New Zealand Scholarship exams are usually studied in Year 13 but they are not part of NCEA. The Scholarship is a financial reward for top-performing students who intend to enter tertiary study. The Scholarship does not contribute towards a qualification.

Why was NCEA introduced?

  • Under the old system, students’ results were often scaled so only a certain number of students could pass. So some students would receive a fail grade regardless of how they performed. NCEA measures each student’s learning against set standards, instead of comparing students and ranking them.
  • Not all skills and knowledge can be assessed using tests and exams (eg fluency in foreign languages, competency in conducting science experiments). NCEA provides a range of assessment methods that are appropriate to the subject being assessed.

How is NCEA different from the old system?

NCEA allows students to work towards other qualifications on the New Zealand qualifications Framework at the same time as they are working toward their NCEA. For example, a student studying materials technology at school might also be working on the National Certificate in Elementary Construction Skills. So, they can earn NCEA credits and a national certificate at the same time.

How is work assessed?

Students’ work is either externally or internally assessed.

  • External assessment means that students sit for an external exam that is set and marked by the New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA).
  • Most external assessment will involve a national exam at the end of the year.
  • Internal assessment refers to work that is set and marked by the school (eg essays, tests, experiments), but the marking is checked by independent moderators from the NZQA to make sure all schools are assessing work to the national standard.

How the system works

What are credits?

Each achievement standard and unit standard is worth a certain number of credits. When a student achieves a standard, they earn the amount of credits that standard is worth.

A single achievement standard is usually worth three to four credits. A single school subject usually has five to eight achievement standards. Depending on the school, the usual number of credits needed per subject is 18 to 25.

How many credits are needed to earn NCEA?

To gain NCEA Level 1:

  • Achieve 80 credits at any level (Level 1, 2 or 3).
  • This must include a minimum of 10 credits in literacy and 10 in numeracy.

To gain NCEA Level 2:

  • Achieve a minimum of 60 credits at Level 2 or above; and
  • 20 credits at any level.

To gain NCEA Level 3:     

  • Achieve a minimum of 60 credits at Level 3 or above; and
  • 20 credits at Level 2 or above.
A coloured chart showing the three steps of NCEA levels one, two, and three, and the number of credits needed at each level
The credits needed to achieve the three NCEA levels.

What are standards? What’s the difference between achievement standards and unit standards?

Standards describe particular skills or knowledge within an area of study (eg English or maths). Students gain NCEA and other qualifications by working towards a combination of achievement standards and unit standards.

  • Achievement standards are gained from studying traditional curriculum subjects. Depending on their performance, students may gain achievement standards with either ‘achieved’, ‘achieved with merit’ or ‘achieved with excellence’. 
  • Unit standards are gained from studying towards traditional curriculum subjects as well as vocational subject areas (eg tourism or hairdressing). Students are awarded unit standards on an ‘achieved’ (pass) or ‘not achieved’ (fail) basis.

What are ‘merit’ and ‘excellence’ endorsements?

Merit and excellence endorsements are ways to recognise students who have achieved outstanding results. You can gain a merit or excellence endorsement for individual achievement standards, or for an individual NCEA course or certificate.

What is needed to gain a ‘merit’ or ‘excellence’ grade for an achievement standard?

This will vary depending on the subject. However, as a general guide:

  • ‘achieved’ means that the student has gained the achievement standard by demonstrating elementary level skills or knowledge
  • ‘achieved with merit’ means that the student has gained the achievement standard by demonstrating intermediate level skills or knowledge
  • ‘achieved with excellence’ means that the student has demonstrated highly developed skills or knowledge.

Here are some examples of achievement criteria for some of the achievement standards for biology, history and graphics at various NCEA levels:


Achieved

Achieved with merit

Achieved with excellence

  Level 2  biology

Describes biological concepts and processes

Explains biological concepts and processes

Discusses biological concepts and processes

  Level 3 history

Demonstrates an understanding of an historical idea

Demonstrates an informed understanding of an historical idea

Demonstrates an informed and perceptive understanding of an historical idea

  Level 3  graphics

Plans and produces a presentation to communicate design ideas

Plans and produces an effective presentation to communicate design ideas

Plans and produces an effective, high quality presentation to communicate design ideas

What is needed to gain a ‘merit’ or ‘excellence’ grade for a course?

To gain a ‘merit’ or ‘excellence’ grade for an individual course or subject, you need to achieve 14 or more merit or excellence credits in that course within a single year.

For example, to gain ‘NCEA Level 2 English with excellence’, you would have to gain enough Level 2 English achievement standards at excellence level to add up to 14 or more credits.

At least 3 of these credits need to be from externally assessed achievement standards, and 3 credits from internally assessed achievement standards.

What is needed to gain a ‘merit’ or ‘excellence’ grade for an NCEA certificate?

To gain a ‘merit’ or ‘excellence’ grade for an NCEA certificate you need to gain 50 or more credits at merit or excellence in one particular NCEA level. 

For example, to gain ‘NCEA Level 2 with excellence’, you would have to gain enough Level 2 achievement standards at excellence level to add up to 50 or more credits.

For more information on NCEA levels, certificates and merit and excellence standards, visit the NZQA website.

I still don’t understand how NCEA actually works! How do I put all this together?

  • A student will typically begin working for their NCEA in their third year of secondary school (Year 11).
  • They will no longer be awarded a single grade for a subject. Instead, each subject is now divided into pieces of skills and knowledge called standards (unit standards or achievement standards). The standards clearly set out what a student needs to be able to demonstrate to achieve that particular standard.
  • Each standard has a certain number of credits. When a student receives an ‘achieved’ for a standard, they will have earned credits towards their NCEA. (See above for how many credits are needed to pass NCEA Levels 1, 2, and 3, and to enter university.)
  • This system allows a student to work towards an industry qualification as well as NCEA while still at school, as the credits they earn for an NCEA level may also be counted towards a national certificate of the same level.