NCEA Explained

07 JUL 2021

NCEA Explained

All you need to know about New Zealand's local high school curriculum.

If you’re in Year 10 and looking to start NCEA Level 1 next year, or even if you are 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 we’ll be covering:

  • What is NCEA?
  • How do I begin NCEA?
  • NCEA Levels
  • What are standards?
  • NCEA Subjects
  • How to choose NCEA subjects?
  • How do I achieve an NCEA certificate?
  • NCEA Grading System
  • Scholarship Subjects
  • Is NCEA recognised internationally?
  • Is the NCEA for you?

What is NCEA?

The National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) is the secondary school curriculum designed and implemented nationally in New Zealand. NCEA is recognised by employers and used for selection by universities and polytechnics, both in New Zealand and overseas. NCEA is part of the New Zealand Qualifications Framework (NZQF) which ranges from Level 1 to Level 10, and includes certificates, diplomas, and degrees.

How do I begin NCEA?

Students become a candidate for NCEA certificates when their high school sends their results for an internally assessed standard to NZQA or when an entry is made for externally assessed subjects. Each student is then given a unique National Student Number (NSN) which allows the student to review their assessment entries, results and Record of Achievement.

NCEA Levels

There are three levels of NCEA certificate – Level 1, which 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.

What are standards?

Students can achieve two types of standards:

  • Unit standards are competency based.
    • These include qualifications related to hospitality, technology, or business administration.
  • Achievement standards are New Zealand curriculum based.
    • Subjects such as history, chemistry, maths, or English.

Secondary schools offer subjects made up of standards that are assessed to meet the NCEA requirements. Each standard is worth a certain number of credits (usually between 2 and 6) that are awarded when you satisfy the assessment for that standard.

Many secondary schools will allow students to study a variety of standards at different levels, depending on their academic ability. For example, a student who is in Year 12, completing Level 2 subjects can add a subject at Level 1 or complete more advanced Level 3 subjects. In addition, students may study multi-level courses with standards at more than one level, e.g., a mathematics course at Year 12 may contain Level 2 and Level 3 standards.

NCEA Subjects

Each year, students can take a variety of subjects, depending on the availability of that specific subject at their school. All secondary schools offer basic subjects such as English, maths and science. However, only some schools will offer more specialised subjects like food technology, specific languages, and creative arts.

In each of the NCEA subjects, there are specific skills and knowledge that are assessed against various standards that are determined by NZQA. For example, a Level 1 Physics standard is: Demonstrate understanding of aspects of electricity and magnetism. This standard is externally assessed, which means that students would complete an exam at the end of the year based on the material learned during their Level 1 Physics course.

How to choose NCEA subjects?

At most schools in New Zealand, all students will study English, Mathematics and Science in Year 11. During Years 12 and 13, there are no compulsory subjects. However, some schools require students to study English or another language-rich subject to meet university entrance requirements. Therefore, choosing NCEA subjects can be challenging, as some university degrees will require specific high school level subjects to fulfil entrance requirements for programs. For example, if you are interested in a career in medicine, some universities may require Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Mathematics, and English at Level 1, 2 and 3.

To choose an NCEA subject that’s right for you…

  • Think about what subjects you enjoy or areas of interest
  • Figure out what subjects you are good at and will excel in
  • Determine what specific subjects you need for your future career
  • Make sure that you have the correct subjects to achieve your career goal
  • Talk with your career advisor if you are unsure about what subjects to pursue

And if you don’t know exactly what you want to do for a career, keep your options open and take a broad range of subjects, especially English, mathematics and science.

How do I achieve an NCEA certificate?

To achieve an NCEA certificate in Level 1, students must achieve 80 credits at any level and fulfil literacy and numeracy requirements. To meet the literacy requirement, students must achieve a minimum of 10 credits in specific internal or external assessments that meet the criteria for literacy found here. Similarly, to meet the numeracy requirement, a student must achieve a minimum of 10 credits in specific internal or external assessments that meet the criteria for numeracy found here. To achieve an NCEA certificate in Level 2, students must achieve 60 credits from Level 2 or above and 20 credits from any level (80 credits total). In addition, the Level 1 literacy and numeracy requirements must be met before completing Level 2. To achieve an NCEA certificate in Level 3, students must achieve 60 credits from Level 3 or above and 20 credits from Level 2 or above (80 credits total).

NCEA Grading System

In place of traditional letter grades, NCEA credits are awarded as Not Achieved (N), Achieved (A), Merit (M) or Excellence (E). Achievement standards are assessed using all four grades. In most cases, unit standards are assessed using only the Achieved and Not Achieved grades. Merit and excellence endorsements are awarded when the student consistently performs above the ‘achievement’ level. In addition, a student can receive individual course endorsements to show that they have performed well in a specific course.

Scholarship Subjects

Scholarship is a monetary award to recognise the top secondary school students in New Zealand. Scholarship exams are externally assessed and are an additional set of exams. They do not attract credits or contribute towards a qualification, but the fact that a student has gained a Scholarship appears on their NCEA Record of Achievement, which can be helpful in gaining admission to a university.