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Understanding NCEA - Tips from a teacher!

We are very lucky to have qualified teachers working at Tovah's Tutoring Company Ltd. This means that our NCEA tuition is packed with relevant and purposeful material that aligns with NCEA assessments. Our online tutor teachers know NCEA like the back of our hands, and many of us are still working in a high school classroom, so we offer confident NCEA support that is current and effective.

NCEA tuition is packed with relevant and purposeful material

This is beneficial, as you may have some idea of NCEA already, however, NCEA is currently going through another re-vamp (so to speak) so there are new rules which will come completely into effect in 2024.

A more concise run down of the changes can be viewed here:

As well as from here:

It is important to note expert information on NZQA and NCEA is readily available on their website or through contacting them directly:

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Our online tutor teachers can support students with NCEA exams.

What is NCEA?

NCEA, or National Certificate of Educational Achievement, is a qualification system used in New Zealand to assess high school students' academic achievements. It was introduced in 2002 to replace the previous School Certificate and Bursary systems.

In other words, it is New Zealand's version of a high school level qualification. It offers a variety of levels within each subject. The main levels are level 1, 2 and 3. However, some NZQA subjects offer level 4 and 5, depending on what the subject is.

NCEA is designed to transition students into career pathways. So, it also means that people outside of school can receive credits and NZQA qualifications in the workforce or polytechnic. You can continue to receive credits outside of school, if you are training in specific trades such as, but not limited to, construction, coffee barista and hair dressing.

When do students begin NCEA?

NCEA is a flexible system that allows students to choose from a wide range of subjects and levels. There are three levels of NCEA, with Level 1 being the most basic and Level 3 being the most advanced. Within high school, students usually sit level one at year 11 (form 5), level two at year 12 (form 6), and level three at year 13 (form 7, the last year of high school). However, there are many schools who encourage extension options for younger students and may offer level one credits as early as year 9. (I have heard through the grapevine, even as early as primary school! But don't quote me on that.)

NCEA Students are required to earn a certain number of credits to pass each level, with credits being awarded for each completed assessment.

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What is an NCEA assessment?

Just like a typical high school experience, students are expected to learn skills and then show the teacher they have learned them through submitting an assessment (NCEA assessment). Each assessment is packed with criteria that must be met from every student undergoing the assessment. The criteria are a nationwide criterion, so in other words, students in the North Island will be expected to meet the same standard as students in the South Island. There is no difference between what school students attend, the expectations are the same nationwide.

It is the teacher's job to make sure there are a variety of ways to learn the skills for their subject, and they will let the student know whether they have learned the skills properly. This gives the teacher creative ownership of the tasks that occurs in the classroom, as long as they include aspects specified in the NCEA assessment criteria.

I will reiterate that an NCEA assessment is an assessment which is available for any NZ high school student. They are divided into subject areas and are also allocated a reward points system, known as 'credits', based on how hard the assessment is. Each assessment has an allocated number that is attached to the title of the assessment as well. It either starts with a 9 and is roughly 5 or 6 numbers in length known as the Achievement Standard Number e.g., AS91514, or it is known as the Subject Matrix number which includes the year level and subject assessment number. This uses a decimal placing to help identify it, e.g., 3.3. The first number is the year level and the number after the decimal placing is the NCEA assessment number. It is common for teachers to refer to these numbers when discussing the NCEA assessments with students, as in some cases it is quicker to say than the entire name of the NCEA assessment. It also means there is no confusion between each NCEA assessment, as sometimes students will undergo more than one NCEA assessment at the same time, as they may flow together nicely.

I would advise students to become familiar with the names, so they do not muddle any up. I have known a student who muddled two external assessments up because they thought the NCEA assessment numbers were the other way around. I would also advise students to look for key words in the title that will help them remember what is required if sitting two or more NCEA exams.

What are NCEA credits?

NCEA Credits are like a points system. Each assessment they pass will provide them with a small number of credits (points). Depending on the depth of the assessment, will determine how many credits the NCEA students are able to achieve. A creative assessment where NCEA students have to think perceptively will usually be worth around 5-10 credits, while basic skills may be worth around 2-4 credits. Students are required to collate all of their credits by the end of the year and reach a total of 80 credits.

See further info on this matter under the 'How many credits do I need to pass?' section.

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What does Merit or Excellence mean?

NCEA students can receive a higher grade than achieved if they produce work that is of a higher calibre / higher than the national standard for their year level. If this is the case, then they can be rewarded with the following added achievement levels (see sequential order below):

HA / High Achieved

LM / Low Merit

M / Merit

HM / High Merit

LE / Low Excellence

E / Excellence

HE / High Excellence

High Excellence is the best mark a student can obtain in NCEA. It symbolises an impeccable performance and demonstration of the skills learned.

It is important to note, even if you have achieved a high or low version of the grade, the mark which appears on the student's record will be either Not Achieved, Achieved, Merit or Excellence.

Is 'E' a good mark to receive for an assessment?

If you were to look at Not Achieved, Achieved, Merit and Excellence like the old grading processes, D/E/F would equate to Not Achieved, C would be Achieved, B would be Merit, and A would be Excellence.

It is common to mistake A's for Excellence and E's for failed or incomplete assessments; especially when reading school reports and NZQA results, as they usually show up as the initial letter. However, 'E' is not a bad thing in NCEA, in fact, it is the highest grade you can receive!

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What does Endorsing with Merit or Excellence mean?

NCEA students are able to be endorsed with Merit or Excellence. This doesn't mean they will receive further credits; however, they can pass each level with a commendable title if rewarded 46 credits at Merit or Excellence, for their overall level. E.g. A student may receive 'Level One: Endorsed with Excellence'.

Having this award means their skill levels are above the National learning standard for their age level throughout the entire subject or year level. It also signifies that the NCEA student is capable of a variety of different skills, not just one specific area in a subject(s). They can only receive this if they can demonstrate their capabilities in internal and external assessments, not one or the other. So, in other words, through in class assessments and their exams.

What's also great is that they can be endorsed for specific subjects as well. This is wonderful news for students who thrive in some subjects, but not all subjects. If this is the case, they can achieve this by receiving 14 or more credits at Achieved or Merit or Excellence. But they also need at least 3 external exam credits at this level too, to achieve this endorsement.

This applies to most subjects except, Physical Education, Religious Studies and Visual Arts (Level 3).

What does 'N' / Not Achieved mean?

This means the student has not met the standard for their year level. It means they have not achieved the assessment or in other words have failed / not passed the assessment.

In terms of initials viewed on student records, 'N' can also be used for incomplete work. Upon occasion a student may have started, attempted or enrolled in the assessment, but if they have not completed it within the time frame, they will receive a 'Not Achieved' mark.

If a student at least attempts an assessment, they can ask their teacher for a chance for re-assessment. If this is approved, then the student can re-do the assessment. This will be at the discretion of the circumstance, timing of the request, and/or can be discussed with the teacher or NZQA specialist at the school.

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How do teachers know how to grade work similar to grades from other schools?

Teachers have received extensive training in marking NCEA assessments. They have had in-school professional development and/or attended courses or conferences to practice and learn more about it. Another way for teachers to be sure and to mark fairly, is through something called 'moderation'. This is where two or more teachers mark the assessment, discuss their findings and then agree on a final grade together. They send their evidence and the student work to NZQA each year and then the NZQA will provide them with feedback (if required or if the teacher requests it). All material sent to NZQA is anonymous. No student details are provided to NZQA when it is sent through to them. Teachers refer to the documentation or video footage as Student A, Student B or if in a video filled with many people, teachers will use a clear identifier such as "Student A: In purple sweatshirt and yellow pants".

What if a student feels they are unfairly graded for an assessment?

It is common for students to feel upset about a mark they have received for work they have put time and effort into. This is why teachers moderate work with other colleagues from their departments or from same subject departments in other schools. Students are allowed to request moderation to be re-done as long as there are clear justifications attached to the request.

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How many credits do I need to pass?

In short, 80 credits. In 2024 and beyond, 60 credits. Read more about it here or below:

Currently, students need a total of 80 credits at or above the NCEA level they are sitting to pass the NCEA level. If the student is sitting level two or level three, then they are able to carry 20 credits over from the former year. This means they will only need to achieve an extra 60 credits to pass level.

It is important to note that from 2024, the ability to carry over credits will no longer be allowed, yet students won't need to obtain 80 credits to pass. Instead, they only have to achieve 60 credits to pass the NCEA level.

How many credits do I need to receive University Entrance?

You need 14 credits in two University Entrance Approved subjects and 12 credits in a third University Entrance subject to receive University Entrance. This means that although a student may have chosen their subjects with the interest of making a career out of the skills obtained in them, they may not be university approved subjects. You will also need to receive NCEA Level 3 and meet literacy and numeracy requirements to attend university.

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What are the pro's of NCEA?

One of the key benefits of NCEA is that it allows NCEA students to tailor their education to their interests and abilities. It also provides a more comprehensive assessment of a student's skills and knowledge than traditional exams, as it includes a range of assessments such as exams, essays, and practical tasks. NCEA is an important part of the New Zealand education system, providing students with a flexible and comprehensive way to demonstrate their academic achievements.

That's it for now...

I hope this has provided you with some clarity on understanding NCEA as a whole.

You can book in online tuition with any of our expert NCEA teachers to help support you in the areas you need support with.

We can help students with a variety of subjects, including the core subjects:

  • NCEA English

  • NCEA Maths*

  • NCEA Science*

*This includes Physics, Chemistry and Biology.

As well as two Art subjects:

  • NCEA Drama

  • NCEA Dance.

Tovah O'Neill

Tovah's Tutoring Company Ltd

To book:






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