What is NCEA and how does it work?

The National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) is the main qualification for secondary-school pupils in New Zealand.

It is recognised by employers and used as a selection benchmark by universities and polytechnics. It is also readily accepted overseas, including by universities.

Each year, pupils study courses or subjects. In each subject, skills and knowledge are assessed against a number of standards (either unit or achievement).

The standards clearly set out what a pupil needs to be able to demonstrate to achieve that particular standard.

Both internal and external assessments are used by schools to measure how well students meet standards.

Internal assessments could be essays, tests and experiments, while most external assessment involves an end-of-year exam.

When a pupil achieves a standard, they gain credits. A certain number of credits must be achieved to gain an NCEA certificate.

A single standard is usually worth three to four credits, with a single subject having five to eight standards. The usual number of credits needed per subject is 18 to 25.

There are three levels of NCEA certificate, based on the difficulty of standards achieved. Pupils generally work through levels 1 to 3 in years 11 to 13.

High achievement is recognised at each level by gaining NCEA with merit or excellence.

The differences in achievement relate to the skills or knowledge a pupil demonstrates.

For example in level 2 biology, a pupil must be able to describe biological concepts and processes; to gain a standard with merit they must be able to explain biological concepts and processes; and to gain it with excellence they must be able to discuss biological concepts and processes.

Pupils can work towards industry qualifications as well as NCEA while still at school, as the credits earned for NCEA may also be counted towards a national certificate at the same level.


NCEA Level 1:

  • 80 credits at any level (Level 1, 2 or 3).
  • This must include a minimum of 10 credits in literacy and 10 in numeracy.

NCEA Level 2:

  • A minimum of 60 credits at Level 2 or above; and
  • 20 credits at any level.

NCEA Level 3:

  • A minimum of 60 credits at Level 3 or above; and
  • 20 credits at Level 2 or above.


Achievement: Generally involves studying traditional curriculum subjects. They can be gained with grades of:

  • Achieved with excellence (an excellent pass)
  • Achieved with merit (a very good pass)
  • Achieved (pass)
  • Not achieved (fail)

Unit: Generally involves studying vocational subjects, and your child is awarded unit standards with grades of:

  • Achieved (pass)
  • Not achieved (fail).


To help parents, whanau and employers better understand NCEA, NZQA (the New Zealand Qualifications Authority) has developed an app.

The NCEA Guide app provides access to key information about NCEA, how it works and how they can support family members studying for their certificates.

It is free to download from the Apple and Google Play stores.

There is also a version for pupils - NCEA Student - which helps with planning a study programme, setting goals and tracking progress.

The app includes all achievement and unit standards, making it easy to find subjects and standards by name or number. 

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