The National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA)

By Eric Eng

By Eric Eng

View of the Wellington Cable Car in New Zealand

The National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA)

The National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA)

If you’re in Year 10 and planning to start NCEA Level 1 next year, or if you’re in Year 13 and preparing for your external assessments, it’s never too late to learn the ‘ins and outs’ of NCEA and what to consider when choosing subjects, studying for exams, or preparing to apply to university.

What is NCEA?

So what is NCEA? The National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) is New Zealand’s national secondary school curriculum. Employers recognize NCEA, and universities and polytechnics in New Zealand and around the world use it to select students. It is part of the New Zealand Qualifications Framework (NZQF), which includes certificates, diplomas, and degrees at levels ranging from 1 to 10.

When was NCEA established?

It is also important to know when the NCEA was established. Introduced in 2002, it is widely regarded as credible and robust, both in Aotearoa New Zealand, and internationally, as an efficient metric of a student’s competence. Employers recognize it, and students use it as a stepping stone into employment, apprenticeships, and a wide range of further study options ranging from apprenticeships and trades training to degree-level study.

a female student writing on her notebook

Why was the NCEA established?

Previously, secondary school qualifications were heavily focused on academic subjects. Students who were interested in vocational subjects were unable to obtain qualifications or recognition for their skills and knowledge.

Secondary school qualifications were heavily reliant on exams (external assessment), which meant that not all of a student’s learning throughout the year was taken into account. In addition, students were graded against their peers, with only a limited number of students allowed to pass each year.

NCEA provides a more complete picture of a student’s competencies and skills. Because assessment is ongoing throughout the year, everything the student does counts towards their qualification. A student is graded based on the outcomes of a standard. Any student who demonstrates the required knowledge and skills for a standard earns credit.

Since the introduction of NCEA, more students have graduated with qualifications. Most employers and tertiary education providers accept NCEA both in New Zealand and internationally.

Its placement on the 10-level New Zealand Qualifications Framework (previously the National Qualifications Framework) demonstrates how it fits more broadly into the New Zealand education system and the pathways it provides into further academic and vocational education.

How has NCEA changed since it was introduced?

Since its inception, NCEA has evolved into a more flexible and inclusive educational model. It recognizes and caters to the diverse needs of students and their various learning pathways.

The introduction of the NCEA certificate endorsement, which is designed to recognize student achievement at Merit or Excellence across all learning areas, is one of the most significant changes. This has been expanded to include endorsements for outstanding performance in individual courses.

The Ministry of Education has reviewed standards against the New Zealand Curriculum, and newly aligned standards have been introduced gradually.

NCEA Online was added as an option in external exams as part of NZQA’s Future State initiative. The online option allows students to be assessed online, rather than on paper, using a computer. This 21st-century approach to digital assessment will foster innovation in teaching and learning and evolve in tandem with evolving technology.

NCEA Levels

Level 1 is usually taken in Year 11, Level 2 in Year 12, and Level 3 in Year 13. During high school, you will typically take six subjects in Level 1, six in Level 2, and five in Level 3.

Male students studying in his dorm room.

What happens if you don’t pass NCEA level 1?

Now let’s talk about what happens if you don’t pass NCEA Level 1. If you do not pass the exam or assessment (NA or Not Achieved), you will receive no credits for that standard, and your credit total will remain the same as it was before you attempted the assessment. NCEA is not a barrier, and many professionals believe that failing level one should not prevent you from progressing to level two.

NCEA Level 1 counts 80 credits from any level. If you are doing level 2 next year, any level 2 credits you earn will count toward passing level 1. (so the first 10 level 2 credits you pass will be credited to level 1 until you reach 80). Credits earned at any level can be applied to multiple NCEA certificates.

Falling short can be heartbreaking, but education and mental health experts encourage students and parents to remember that there are many paths to success.

On Tuesday, 140,000 students across the country received their results, but at least 30,000 are likely to have failed to obtain the required 80 credits.

NCEA tips

Here are some “success tips” based on what the markers have said in recent years. We hope these hints make the difference between “achieved” and the dreaded “not achieved.”


  • Brush up on both the digestive and skeletomuscular systems, not just one.
  • Do not humanize answers or chemical reactions.


  • DO NOT use terms that attribute human emotions to atoms (a common mistake).
  • Be familiar with a wide range of practical experiments and use proper terminology.
  • Check that equations are balanced, that charges on ions are included, and that answers have the correct number (usually three) of significant figures and unit.


  • DON’T write everything you know about a topic in the hope of getting more marks – give a concise answer.
  • Understand how to correctly read, draw, and label graphs.
  • Do not use the word “money”? Use “income,” “revenue,” or “profit” instead.
  • Instead of using vague terms like “us” or “them,” use the name of the organization you’re discussing.


  • READ the whole exam before starting to answer.
  • Prepare more than one case study, and choose wisely – for example, choosing Antarctica makes it difficult to answer a question about soil and vegetation.
  • Give facts, not opinions or stereotypes, and make sure your information is up to date.
  • Understand how to reset your calculator because exam staff will clear its memory before the exam.


  • Don’t try to rewrite history. NCEA markers can tell if you’re making stuff up.
  • Don’t give general, ambiguous answers; most questions require specifics backed up by evidence.
  • Plan and structure essays properly.
  • Ensure that your paragraphs follow the basic structure of a key idea followed by evidence.


  • Learn to draw ray diagrams accurately.
  • Know which formula to use for each type of calculation, and don’t confuse terms like atoms and nuclei, or force and energy.
  • Understand the concepts of displacement and gravity, and use correct terminology – in previous years, this was a particular issue for students writing about electricity.


  • Bring a calculator and a ruler.
  • Study the fundamentals – almost all examiner comments last year were about a lack of knowledge.
  • Many students made silly mistakes, such as confusing atoms with ions or magma with lava.

Social Studies

  • DON’T make up quotes or give your opinion.
  • Make use of the planning pages that are provided.
  • When asked to describe the consequences for society, avoid discussing the consequences for individuals.
  • Use New Zealand situations as examples of biculturalism rather than the civil rights movement in the United States or apartheid in South Africa.a female student sitting and appears to be thinking

All exams

  • Don’t assume that the structure of your exam will be the same as it was last year; check with your school.
  • Carefully read each question and ensure that your answer actually addresses the question.
  • Try to answer as many questions as possible.
  • Carefully follow instructions and make use of any resource materials or planning space made available to you.
  • Use proper language, such as “increases” rather than “goes up”.
  • Avoid colloquialisms.
  • Write legibly in your NCEA questionnaire.
  • Don’t just memorize some answers and hope they come up – be adaptable and prepare for a variety of questions.
  • Try to understand the subject rather than memorize parts of it.

Entering your dream school

AdmissionSight has skilled professionals with over a decade of experience who can assist you in gaining admission to your desired school here or abroad. We enjoy working with ambitious, success-oriented students. Concerning the application and admissions process, we are confident that our students can compete with the brightest.

More than 75 percent of AdmissionSight students have been accepted to their dream colleges. Make an appointment for a free consultation today to begin your epic journey.




Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Sign up now to receive insights on
how to navigate the college admissions process.