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The changes, to be phased in over four years starting from next year, are part of a major overhaul of the qualification.
The government says there are too many barriers to NCEA, so it is axing the qualification's $76.70-a-year fee, and $30 fee for each Scholarship exam subject.
Level one of the NCEA will stay, and the number of credits required to get each level will drop from 80 to 60.
However, credits from lower levels will no longer count toward higher levels of the qualification, and students will not be allowed to resubmit assignments unless they are trying to improve from a fail grade.
There will be a new externally-marked 20-credit literacy and numeracy benchmark.
The single common benchmark in English and te reo Māori will provide a clear standard to evaluate performance and level of quality across literacy and numeracy, the NCEA document said.
"It must be met to gain any level of NCEA and can be assessed against whenever students are ready."
The standards would be externally graded, to avoid increasing teacher workload and to guarantee credibility, the document said.
There will be fewer achievement standards for each subject, but each would be broader.
The National Certificates of Educational Achievement were phased in from 2002. Students could achieve the certificate at level one, two or three by completing sufficient individual achievement or unit standards through a mix of internal assessment and external exams.