Last updated: 18 September, 2020

Understanding NCEA

For many, the first qualifications earned at school will be the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA). Here's how it works.

New Zealand’s education system is world-class. For many, the first qualifications earned at school will be the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA).

Curious about this qualification and how the system works? Read on to learn more about study at secondary school level in New Zealand and the NCEA.

Since 2002, NCEA has been New Zealand’s academic qualification at the secondary school level (also known as high schools or colleges). Students work towards NCEA Levels 1, 2 and 3 between ages 15-18.

Administered by the New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA), the certificate is an important pathway to further study or employment in New Zealand and is internationally recognised.

How does NCEA work?

NCEA is about earning credits as you learn to gain up to three levels of the certificate.

Each school subject awards credits for successfully completing Achievement Standards like school assignments, end-of-year exams, or through vocational Unit Standards, which are skills-based assessments. These can be developed either by NZQA or by transitional Industry Training Organisations.

Students usually work toward earning one level per school year. The requirements for achieving each level are listed below:

  • Level 1: 80 credits at Level 1 or above

  • Level 2: 60 credits at Level 2 or above, plus 20 credits at any level 

  • Level 3: 60 credits at Level 3 or above, plus 20 credits at any level

Each standard is worth a predetermined number of credits. Standards can be either internally or externally assessed. Internal assessments are completed throughout the school year (usually assignments and tests), while external assessments are national end-of-year exams. Some school subjects will require a student to turn in a portfolio of work instead, like Art or Design.

Instead of being graded with a percentage, students’ achievement is graded for each standard attempted: Achieved or Not Achieved, with grades for completing requirements to a high level labelled with Merit (like a B) or Excellence (A). If students achieve 50 credits or more at a Merit or Excellence level, they will have their certificate endorsed, as recognition of their high achievement.

Students must also achieve a minimum of 10 credits specifically in literacy and numeracy, which shows their ability in reading, writing and mathematical skills in order to pass NCEA Level 1 and beyond.

What is University Entrance and why is it required?

University Entrance (UE) is a minimum requirement to enrol in tertiary education at a university in New Zealand. Students must demonstrate a depth and breadth of achievement in at least three subjects from a list of approved subjects. Students must also achieve credits that showcase numeracy skills, like Maths, and literacy competence, like English and Te Reo Māori.

Obtaining UE shows tertiary providers that a student possesses the literacy and numeracy skills required for higher education. UE is usually earned in a student’s final year at a secondary level.

NCEA for employers

Employers who want to understand a job candidate’s credentials can be shown a Record of Achievement or School Results Summary.

The Record of Achievement is an official document which outlines all national qualifications and standards a candidate has achieved. A School Results Summary will show you a record of a candidate’s grades while at school.

On either of these documents you will see which course or subject a candidate has studied. You will be able to see the grade for each standard attempted.

Changes to NCEA in 2020

Due to the impact COVID-19 continues to have on learning and study towards getting a qualification, students will be eligible for additional ‘Learning Recognition’ (LR) credits in 2020. For every five credits a student has achieved in 2020, one LR credit will be earned. Students are eligible for up to 10 LR credits at Level 1 and eight credits at Levels 2 and 3. These totals will be calculated in early 2021.

Certificate endorsements will be awarded to students who earn 46 credits at Merit or Excellence levels; that’s four less than the 50 usually required.

The end-of-year exam dates have also been moved to allow more time for students to study. You can find more information on the NZQA website.

Want to know even more? Take a look at the NZQA website and watch a short video explaining the qualification. If you are a student looking to check your progress with NCEA, try accessing your Record of Achievement on the NZQA website.

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under Creative Commons licence.

This content can be shared and edited for the purpose of promoting New Zealand as an education destination.