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A guide to NCEA for parents (and students)

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How NCEA Works

The National Certificate of Educational Achievement, otherwise known as NCEA, is the national qualification that most students will sit in Years 11, 12 & 13 - equivalent to School Certificate, Sixth Form and Bursary.

So how does NCEA actually work?

Subjects & Levels

Just like in the old system, students usually still take 5 or 6 subjects in their last 3 years of high school.

All students take English, Maths and Science in Year 11, plus optional subjects. These are generally at Level 1, which is equivalent to the old School Certificate.

In Year 12, or Level 2, most schools encourage students to take English and Maths, but students generally have the freedom to choose more of their own subjects. Level 2 is important because these grades are the most recent when applying to universities for scholarships and halls.

And finally in Year 13, most schools give students complete freedom with their subjects. However, at least one English-based subject is encouraged such as English itself, History, Classics, Media Studies or Geography. These are generally at Level 3, which is equivalent to the old University Entrance or Bursary qualification.

In summary:

  • Level 1 – Year 11 – equivalent to School Cert.
  • Level 2 – Year 12 – equivalent to Sixth-Form Certificate
  • Level 3 – Year 13 – equivalent to University Entrance or Bursary

Students can study Level 1, 2 or 3 at any time. For example, many students in Year 10 might take Level 1 Maths a year ahead if they are in the extension class. Or students in Year 13 make take Level 2 subjects if they decide to pick up a subject for their tertiary study that they haven’t taken before.

Achievement Standards

Instead of a subject being assessed fully in the end-of-year exam, each subject consists of several ‘achievement standards’. Standards are essentially individual topics.

For example, there are 13 different standards, or topics, in Level 1 Maths, each of which are worth different numbers of credits. In total this subject has 44 credits available.

What is a credit?

One credit equates to about 10 hours of learning time - that is class time and independent study together. Some smaller standards are only worth 2 credits, while other larger standards may be worth 6 credits or even more.

Most students will take around 20 credits in each subject each year, but this is highly variable. For our Level 1 Mathematics example, this means students taking this subject will learn about half of the potential curriculum content for this subject.

Externals & Internals

Standards can be either internal or external and most subjects are made up of a mix of these.

Internal standards are evaluated ‘internally’ by the school and are usually assessed with practical work, written portfolios or assignments, or as tests for topics that can’t fit into the end-of-year exams.

External standards are assessed in the end-of-year exams in November. Almost every subject has three standards in the externals, each expected to take an hour to complete. However, teachers will potentially only teach two, or even one of these external standards, meaning students have a longer relative time to complete each paper in the given 3 hour time limit.

There are a few special subjects which are purely assessed with internals, such as Religious Studies and Physical Education.


One of the confusing aspects of NCEA is that assessments are not graded as percentages, or the conventional A B or C like School Cert., Bursary or university assessments.

Instead, NCEA has the possible grades of:

  • Not Achieved
  • Achieved
  • Merit
  • Excellence.

Seemingly against common sense, Achieved is not necessarily equivalent to getting 50% (a C). The marking criteria in NCEA are based on the inclusion of specific answer content. Students may have included the bare minimum and easily gain an Achieved with the right information. Other students may have much of their work at an Excellence level, but may have missed some content required for Achieved and end up getting a Not Achieved grade. This is something for parents to be mindful of when talking with their teen about their results.

No matter what grade a student earns, students receive the full amount of credits for that particular standard, just at an Achieved, Merit or Excellence level.

How To Pass Each Level

As described above, NCEA has 3 levels.

Level 1 is usually completed in Year 11. For students to achieve their Level 1 NCEA certificate, they need a total of 80 credits at Level 1 or above, added up from all the subject standards (internals and externals) they have taken. In other words, they need to pass 80 credits at either Achieved, Merit or Excellence.

To achieve Level 2 NCEA certificate, students need 60 credits at Level 2 or above, and the equivalent for Level 3.

20 of the Level 1 credits get carried over to Level 2 as Achieved credits, and likewise for Level 2 credits being carried over to Level 3.

In summary:

  • Level 1
    • 80 credits at any level (1, 2 or 3)
    • Including 10 literacy and 10 numeracy credits at Level 1 or above
  • Level 2
    • 60 credits at Level 2 or above
    • 20 credits from any level, though usually carried over from Level 1
    • Including 10 literacy and 10 numeracy credits at Level 1 or above
  • Level 3
    • 60 credits at Level 3 or above
    • 20 credits from any level, though usually carried over from Level 2
    • Including 10 literacy and 10 numeracy credits at Level 1 or above

Certificate Endorsement

Each NCEA Level certificate can be endorsed with Merit or Excellence. This demonstrates that a student is achieving well overall, and is often a target for students in Year 12 in particular. The concept is somewhat similar to combining grades to achieve Bursary in the old system, but available to students in Years 11, 12 and 13.

Certificate endorsements require 50 credits at either Merit or Excellence from any standards completed at the right level within one school year. For example, a student who earns 49 Excellence credits, and 21 Merit credits, will (unfortunately) earn an NCEA certificate endorsed with Merit.

Course Endorsement

Subjects can also be endorsed, if at least 14 credits are achieved with either Merit or Excellence, within a single school year. Usually more determined students aim for this endorsement, as it requires demonstrating a good knowledge across most of the topics/standards they complete within a particular subject.

Students need to gain credits from a mixture of internal and external standards to get a subject endorsement (except in Religious Studies and Physical Education).

University Entrance & Scholarship

Students are able to work towards UE and Scholarship subjects in Level 3. We will cover this in a later article, so please keep an eye out for that.


NCEA is a complicated system, especially compared to School Cert. and Bursary. It often takes students their Level 1/Year 11 year to really understand how it works.

If you have any questions about anything you’ve read, please don’t hesitate to contact us by emailing

We’re more than happy to help.

Melanie and the AHeadStart Team

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