NCEA explained: your guide to how it works

Confused with NCEA? The courses your child chooses at secondary school can affect what they’ll do in the future, so it’s good to know how it works.

Cluey Learning Tuesday, 22 June 2021

If you think that the National Certificate of Education Achievement (NCEA) is complicated, you’re not alone. Many parents don’t fully understand how it works and often, students don’t really understand it either. The more you know about the system, the better you can set your child up for successful study.

NCEA is New Zealand’s main secondary school qualification which has evolved to meet the needs of 21st century learners. NCEA is recognised by employers, and used for selection by universities and polytechnics, both in New Zealand and overseas. NCEA is for everyone, whether they want to do an apprenticeship, go to university, or be ready to get a job when they leave high school.

While the programme continues to follow the New Zealand Curriculum, the NCEA qualification has become a more flexible and inclusive model of education. It is designed to build on each student’s character and interests to give them the knowledge and skills that are identified as crucial for the new world of work or further study.

How does it work in practice?

NCEA has three levels; Level 1, Level 2, Level 3 and there is also a New Zealand Scholarship for the most able students. Subjects offered cater for the diverse needs of students and their different learning pathways.

This video explains it all:

At least 50% of the year’s work in most subjects will be externally assessed. This is usually in the form of a three-hour exam. This external assessment will take place in all three of Years 11, 12 and 13. The other 50%, depending on the subject, is internally assessed. Scholarship is assessed purely by means of a three-hour exam or a folio of work in the case of Graphics and Visual Art.

The curriculum content of each subject at each level is divided up into about five to eight topics and each of these is either internally or externally assessed.

For each topic there will be an Achievement Standard (AS). This specifies exactly what the students have to do to pass and gives them credits towards their NCEA. For each standard there are three levels of achievement: Achieved, for the average student; Achieved with Merit, for the more capable students; Achieved with excellence, for the top students.

Aside from this, some subjects are assessed using Unit Standards (US). These have been around for many years and are similar to Achievement Standards except that there is no division into achieved, merit, excellence and they are always internally assessed. Credits gained from Unit Standards have the same status as those from Achievement Standards for the NCEA Level 1, 2 and 3 certificates but not for the University Entrance Qualification.

To achieve NCEA students need to accumulate a certain number of credits, depending on what level they are studying.

NCEA Level 1

To achieve NCEA Level 1, a student has several options. They can either gain 80 Level 1 credits or combine Level 1 credits with credits from Level 2 or higher to make up their total of 80.

For this reason, if you are entering NCEA in Year 12 (Level 2), it is still possible to gain NCEA Level 1 as credits gained at Level 2 or 3 count towards NCEA at that Level as well as NCEA at lower levels.

For example:

  • If a student gains 40 Level 1 and 40 Level 2 credits they will gain Level 1 NCEA
  • If a student gains 20 Level 1 and 60 Level 2 credits they will gain Levels 1 and 2 NCEA
  • If a student gains 20 Level 2 and 60 Level 3 credits they will gain Levels 1, 2 and 3 NCEA

However, a student must gain a minimum of 10 literacy credits at Level 1. This includes credits from subjects such as English, Religious Studies, te reo Māori and Science. A further minimum of 10 numeracy credits is also required at this level. For more information check out NZQA’s site.

NCEA Level 2

Students generally take six subjects at NCEA Level 2 with a course of study in each of English and Mathematics. NCEA level 2 is the most important year to get good grades. Applying for university occurs halfway through students’ last year of high school. Therefore, NCEA level 2 results are used for applying for scholarships, universities and halls of residence.

NCEA Level 3

In NCEA Level 3, students are expected to take five subjects with no compulsory options. To achieve Level 2 or 3, 80 credits are needed. This includes 60 credits at the level they are studying and a further 20 credits which could come from a lower level.

A student gains credits in each subject, some internally assessed, some externally assessed. The externally assessed credits are examined in most subjects through a three-hour exam held in November. However, there are some subjects which are not externally assessed. For example, Visual Art, Graphics, Physical Education, Digital or Materials Technology.

Certificate endorsement

When students are consistently working above the ‘Achieved’ level, their result(s) can be endorsed to recognise that high achievement. This can be acknowledged at either the Certificate or individual course level.

For an NCEA Certificate to be endorsed with Excellence, a student must gain 50 out of 80 credits at Excellence at the level of the Certificate or above. This also applies for students who gain 50 credits at Merit (or Merit and Excellence) in their level of study.
Certificate endorsement is acknowledged in January each year with the release of external results. Only the highest level certificate awarded can be endorsed, however, there are exceptions. For more information check out NZQA’s site.

Course endorsement

Course endorsement recognises student achievement in an individual course. Students gain a course endorsement if, in a single school year, they achieve 14 or more credits at Achieved, Merit or Excellence in that particular course.

At least three of these credits need to be from externally assessed standards and three from internally assessed standards. However, this may not apply to subjects that are fully internally assessed such as Physical Education, Religious Studies and Level 3 Visual Arts.
It is important to note that a course endorsement can be given even if a qualification for that level is not achieved. For example, a student may achieve a Merit endorsement for Level 2 Mathematics without passing NCEA Level 2.

University Entrance

Another important qualification is University Entrance which entitles a student to a place at university. To achieve this, students must gain NCEA Level 3 with 14 Achievement Standards credits in three approved subjects. Also needed are 10 literacy credits at Level 2 or above (5 reading/5 writing) and 10 Numeracy credits at Level 1 or above.

With a changing academic climate, however, minimum University Entrance is no longer sufficient to ensure a place at university. A points system now operates, and the de facto university entrance requirement is a minimum of 70-80 achieved credits but this varies between universities.

New Zealand Scholarship

Most able students are encouraged to enter Scholarship in up to three subjects. Each subject (except Visual Arts and Graphics) has just one exam. The scholarship exams occur concurrently with the Level 3 exams in November which means several exams in a short space of time.

Future Pathways

After students have left school, they will be able to complete or upgrade their NCEA level. Most courses at polytechnics, colleges of education, accredited private and government training establishments and on-the-job training programmes offer opportunities to gain NCEA credits.

NCEA results are recognised by tertiary institutions both in New Zealand and overseas and by many employers around the world. For some purposes, internal results may be more relevant while for others, examinations. However, for most purposes a combination of all results will give a clear picture of a student’s achievements.

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