National Certificate of Educational Achievement

National Certificate of Educational Achievement

The National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) is, since 2004, the official secondary school qualification in New Zealand.

It has three levels, corresponding to the levels within the National Qualifications Framework, and these are generally studied in each of the three final years of secondary schooling—Year 11 through to Year 13.

NCEA assessment is administered both at the school level via internal assessment and at a national level via external assessments such as examinations, and uses criterion or standard-based assessment.

The New Zealand Qualifications Authority administers the NCEA.



NCEA replaced the previous secondary school qualifications in a phased change from 2002 to 2004. The key difference between NCEA and the previous qualification framework is that NCEA implements a standard- or criterion-based system of assessment, whereas the previous qualifications were norm based. That is, to pass in NCEA, the student must demonstrate a certain level of knowledge (the criterion or standard), whereas, for example, to pass a School Certificate course, the student had to gain a higher grade than at least half of those sitting that course. NCEA does, however, alter/moderate the criteria so that only a certain number of students get the appropriate grade.

The qualifications at the time were the School Certificate, Sixth Form Certificate and the University Bursaries. The Universities Entrance Board ran Bursary and Sixth Form Certificate, and the Ministry of Education ran School Certificate, until 1991 when they were managed by the New Zealand Qualifications Authority.

Controversy and media

NCEA's phase-in met controversy in the public and media. NCEA's history so far has been at best considered controversial, although by 2010 the system has had enough time to be well embedded and understood within the secondary school system. For some schools, this controversy delayed the introduction of the second level by one year. In these schools the Transitional Sixth Form Certificate was offered for one year in its place. The second and third levels of NCEA were then introduced simultaneously in 2004.

Some schools, most notably King's College, Auckland and Auckland Grammar School, decided to offer the International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE) and the A-level General Certificate of Education from CIE (Cambridge International Examinations) instead of or alongside NCEA, for some or all of their students. Some schools did this in fear the new qualification would not be recognized overseas, others did this as critics of NCEA. The IGCSE and IGCE A-level are colloquially known as the "Cambridge exams" in New Zealand since the most prominent examination board is the University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate (UCLES). Some schools such as Diocesan School for Girls (Auckland) chose the International Baccalaureate, further increasing the controversy.

On the other hand, some schools, including Epsom Girls' Grammar School and Pakuranga College which was until recently headed by a prominent proponent of NCEA (Bali Haque), were fully behind NCEA and supported it. There was, therefore, a significant media battle about the introduction of this qualification. A number of schools have expressed that they would initially implement NCEA but might change to the IGCSE and GCE A-levels.[citation needed]

Other people in the education sector, including education experts and universities, were also involved in this debate. Like schools, university professors and education experts were split over NCEA's credibility.[citation needed] As time passed the debate involved opposition politicians as well.

It became clear that there were faults in the system,[citation needed] it being a new system that had not been used in any other country before, though it had been tested in some schools. The Ministry of Education defended NCEA from the criticisms that were made of it. Many changes to the system were made in its first years, including the introduction of the New Zealand Scholarship and the awarding of holistic grades (see below).

In 2004, after large criticisms of inter-subject and inter-year variability in results, a government inquiry into both NCEA and NZ Scholarship was initiated which resulted in further refinements. The report on NCEA by the State Services Commission was critical of NZQA's performance, and recommended "safety nets" to avoid excessive variation without a suitable explanation—a measure felt by some to be a step back to norm-referencing. It also recommended that examination papers be returned later to allow more time for marking. During this time, the chief executive and board chairman of NZQA both resigned.

After some weeding, the number of faults that remain in the system is a matter of wide-ranging opinion. The NCEA remains a point of debate in education, and it continues to undergo criticism and refinement while its outgoing students are watched with great interests.[citation needed]

New Zealand University Entrance

Until 1986, University Entrance was awarded by examination or by "accreditation". Some schools were not allowed to accredit University Entrance. From 1986 to 2003, University Entrance was awarded to students whose scores were not enough for an A or B Bursary but good enough for University Entrance in the Bursary exams. From 2004, under NCEA, University Entrance is based on the results achieved at NCEA Level 3 (see below for details). Entrance Scholarships have been replaced by New Zealand Scholarship, a different but closely related award.


A student gains the NCEA when they achieve a specified number of credits from standards on the National Qualifications Framework (NQF), as follows:

  • NCEA Level 1 is gained by achieving 80 credits at any level of the NQF, of which eight credits must demonstrate numeracy (i.e. Mathematics) and eight credits must demonstrate literacy (i.e. English or Te Reo Maori). As from 2011 in any other approved subject that has a literacy content will satisfy the minimal requirement so students will no longer have to do an actual language.
  • NCEA Level 2 is gained by achieving 80 credits, of which 60 must be at Level 2 or higher and the remainder from any level. There is no literacy or numeracy requirement.
  • NCEA Level 3 is gained by achieving 80 credits, of which 60 must be at Level 3 or higher and the remainder at Level 2 or higher.

Credits awarded can be used more than once, so a student that has achieved NCEA Level 1 only needs 60 Level 2 credits to pass NCEA Level 2 (20 credits are reused from Level 1).

Level 1 is generally studied by students in their eleventh year of schooling, and Levels 2 and 3 at years 12 and 13 respectively. NCEA Level 3 is the national school leavers' qualification. The New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA) administers these qualifications.

A standard is a module of work in which competence is demonstrated for the standard (and associated credits) are awarded. Standards in conventional school subjects, which are assessed against three passing grades (achievement, achievement with merit and achievement with excellence), are known as achievement standards. Unit standards were designed for vocational fields and are either achieved or not achieved. As from 2011 most Unit standards are being withdrawn as they were set at curriculum level 3 or 4.The remaining ones will mainly be ITO standards. Each credit is intended to represent ten hours of learning; a 120-credit course in one year is considered to be full-time equivalent.[citation needed] Standards at Levels 1 to 3 are generally worth between two and six credits, although there are some standards that do as high as twelve.[1]


While the taking of prescribed subject courses is neither mandatory nor recognised by the certificate, academic subjects generally have matrices of recommended achievement standards for that subject. A subject matrix generally consists of 24 credits. Schools are not required to use or teach to these achievement standard combinations; school often design courses of achievement standards, unit standards, or a mixture of both, for vocational courses or courses for the intellectually challenged students. As 2012 schools will not be able to offer a mix of achievement and unit standards as nearly all unit standards for conventional school subjects have been stopped to stop the widespread practice of double dipping. Increasingly schools are placing fewer standards in a course ,especially external achievement standards.This means that instead of doing 4 papers in a 3 hour exam students may do 2 or 3 or in some cases 1.This gives students far more time and raises the chance of them getting an endorsed certificate.

NZQA also uses a list of approved subjects to award university entrance. An approved subject is a group of achievement and unit standards that are considered to belong to the same academic subject.

Certificate endorsement

In 2007, a new feature introduced to NCEA was the ability to have certificates endorsed with merit or excellence - prior to this, students could only achieve on a certificate. The endorsements work on what grade the student got on their achievement standard, and the credits that are awarded for that standard are at the level of the grade.

Under the endorsement system, a student who gains any NCEA certificate with at least 50 credits at merit or excellence level is endorsed with merit. A student who gets 50 credits at excellence level is endorsed with excellence.About 2-3% of students nation wide earn excellence certificates. There has been a significant rise in students challenging grades. Each year about 20% of challenged grades are raised.

University entrance

Eligibility for university entrance is awarded to students who gain 42 credits at Level 3 in no more than four subjects, of which 14 must come from each of two approved subjects, as well as 8 literacy credits at Level 2, of which 4 credits must be in reading standards and 4 credits must be in writing standards, and 14 numeracy credits at Level 1.

For some tertiary courses which have a limited entry quota, students are ranked by their merit and excellence grades over their best 80 credits. For each credit gained, points are awarded as in the grade average above. Note that points are given per credit, not by standard, so a five-credit standard achieved with merit would get fifteen points. The students above the cut-off point for the course in question are admitted. This method is used over the grade average to ensure that students who did not take a full subject course (or fail some standards) do not gain an unfair advantage.


Achievement levels

Each standard can be achieved at one of three levels:

  • Achievement or achieved (A) - meaning the candidate met the criteria of the standard to a level which demonstrates adequate understanding of the material tested.
  • Achievement with merit or merit (M) - meaning the candidate has met the criteria of the standard which demonstrates substantial knowledge of the material tested.
  • Achievement with excellence or excellence (E) - this mark means that the candidate has demonstrated in depth understanding of the material tested.

For unit standards, a student can only gain an 'Achieved' or 'Not Achieved' grade.

Each assessment contains activities or questions that test each level of achievement, and a candidate must achieve a certain proficiency in each progressive level of achievement before gaining credit for the next level of achievement: for example, a candidate who fails to gain the required amount of Achievement questions correct is not eligible for an Achievement with Merit or Excellence grade, regardless of the amount of Merit or Excellence questions they answered correctly. The same is true of Achievement with Merit questions.

A failure to gain an achievement grade is reported as not achieved (NA or N). In externally assessed standards, a blank paper is reported as standard not attempted (SNA). If a student does not sit an externally assessed standard, it is marked as did not sit (DNS) which is often regarded by educational institutions as worse than a not achieved grade.

Internal and external assessments

There are two ways of assessment in NCEA - internal and external. Achievement standards can be internal or external, while unit standards are only internal.

Internal standards are usually completed during the year, and are usually marked by one or more teachers at the school. They can involve both practical and theory tasks, and can take anywhere from one hour to three weeks to complete, and preliminary results can be back within a week. Every year, randomly-selected internal standards are externally moderated by NZQA to make sure the marking done internally matches their expected standard. Practice external standards (mock exams) are marked internally, but unlike true internal standards, they do not count for credits, although these results are usually taken into account if the candidate applies for a derived grade (formerly compassionate consideration).

External standards are assessed either by an examination held in the second half of November, or sending portfolios of work completed during the year to NZQA around the same time. These standards are marked by NZQA-employed markers, and preliminary results are generally released in mid-January. Random moderation of external standards is usually done by a second marker, and students can easily tell this from the presence of green pen in their returned papers in addition to the first marker's red pen.

Marking mechanism

NCEA uses a strict criterion-referenced marking system.

In essay or task-based examinations, the criteria for each grade are made so that the marker looks at the work holistically and decides which level of performance has been achieved. For example, in a level 3 English paper, the depth of the candidate's critical analysis of the studied works and the level of fluency shown are considered.

In question-based examinations, item-testing is used: questions are set so that answers can demonstrate the levels required for achievement, merit, or excellence. Questions which demonstrate basic understanding are known as "achievement questions". Generally, to get an achievement grade, the student must answer a majority of achievement questions correctly. To get merit, the student must answer a certain proportion of merit questions correctly, and to get excellence, the student must do so for the excellence questions. The proportion varies between subjects, and in most cases, an incomplete answer to an excellence question can be credited as achievement or merit depending on the answer's quality, due to many excellence questions beginning with achievement and merit level steps. Typically there are more achievement opportunities than merit ones, and more merit questions than those of excellence.

Holistic grades and replacement evidence

The fault uncovered in this system was that a student could get the merit and excellence questions right but may stumble on the achievement questions – demonstrating a good understanding of the subject – but would be marked with a not achieved grade, as s/he had failed to meet the criteria for achievement.

Holistic grades were introduced — so that in such an event where technicalities had prevented the student from succeeding, the marker can use his/her professional judgement to judge if the student had reached a merit level.

Replacement evidence is when a correct answer at a higher level used as evidence for a lower level at the expense of the correct higher-level answer, for example an excellence question being turned into a merit question when the student would not have enough merit questions to get merit otherwise. Supplementing by merit and excellence marks can only occur if these marks that come from a marking opportunity which has not already contributed an achievement mark, otherwise this would be 'double dipping' and in practice counting the mark twice.

The exact specifications of holistic grades and replacement evidence vary from subject to subject.


NCEA has generally met a mixed reception, both from the public and high-profile individuals. Some claim that it is far better than the old system, others claim that it is far worse; some claim that it just needs attention to be fixed. Listed below are some of the main points that have been expressed for and against NCEA.

Please note that there may be duplicate and contradicting points between the two arguments, and none of the following points are endorsed in their factual accuracy or advantage. This list includes arguments for each side only.


Some[citation needed] say that NCEA is a great step upwards from the old system, meeting the needs of students best. Some of their points are outlined below:

  • Assessment is criteria-based: The old system was norm-based, mandating the failure of a set proportion of students each year. With NCEA this is no longer necessary, and students can understand exactly what is required of them. However, these requirements can be changed (altering the marking schedule) in order to achieve the expected numbers of each grade band (Profiles of Expected Performance, or PEPs). For example, in the 2008 Level One Biology Paper, approximately 43-49% of candidates were expected to receive a "Not Achieved" grade, with less than 10% expected to receive "Excellence" grades. Had actual grades begun to deviate from this, "NZQA and panel leaders consider whether:
    • An amendment to the marking schedule will correct the discrepancy
    • There is an explicable and defensible reason for the change in performance
    • Any further action is required or justified."[2]
  • Flexible and tailored: The modules of NCEA make it flexible and tailored to all students, so that they can show their individual strengths. They can include what they want to, thus controlling their own learning.
  • Greater analysis of results: Universities and employers can now analyse a candidate's strengths and weaknesses with results in individual sectors given as opposed to what some considered a vague percentage.
  • Improvement in internal assessment: Internal assessment is now moderated, unlike before, and tests understanding in practical situations as well. Also, the increase of internal assessment relieves pressure from the final examinations.
  • Levels are relevant to each other: The three previous secondary qualifications were separate and were not related to each other. NCEA's three levels are all linked under one system.


NCEA has had its critics on different levels. Some[citation needed] say that NCEA will never achieve acceptance from the public, because it is meaningless. Others say that NCEA needs to be fixed, as NCEA is not heading down the road it was meant to be. The criticism from both views (some of which overlap) are outlined below:

  • Statistical correction: There is no predetermined proportion of passes or failures. This means that the pass rate is not absolutely constant between years or standards. Each year many cases trigger remarking of standards to conform to previous pass rates range. This can occur because of an error in the paper , an ambiguos question or disagreement amongst the making panel.
  • Modules can be excluded from a subject: Previously, the number of optional parts of a subject were fewer. Under the NCEA, students have the choice of excluding modules they do not want to enter.
  • Mark bands are inconsistent: The marking system means that grades are not consistent with percentages, as it depends on which questions were correct. Thus, a student can outscore another but receive a lower grade.
  • Combined academic and vocational standards: Before academic subjects are introduced, the original standards on the National Qualifications Framework were vocational. The two types cannot contribute to the same qualification as they are not suitable for each other.
  • Poor internal assessment: The criteria for achievement are often inconcise meaning that teachers have difficulty assessing work. Also, some schools allow varying numbers of resits, but others do not. Moderation is poor as incorrect grades are not actually changed.
  • Difficulty irrelevance: Some of the credits available through straightforward, non-academic courses are far simpler to obtain than those in the more complex academic subjects. As such, students who complete more difficult subjects often earn the same number of credits as those who choose simpler paths, yet the former must work considerably harder to achieve it.
  • Disjointed assessments: Much of the year is devoted to working on internal assessments, worth equal or more credits towards certificates than the end of year examinations. However, the internals are completely unrelated to the subject matter assessed in these exams (or externals), and therefore interfere with students developing the skills they will need for them.
  • Capped achievement levels: With internal assessments providing credits for students through the year, a particularly able student is able to endorse their certificate with Excellence before entering their external exams. There is no higher grade available to them, and they have little motivation to apply themselves to their end of year exams.
  • Redundancy of grades: There are four possible grades available to students, ranging upwards through Not Achieved, Achieved, Merit, and Excellence. In order to attain an Excellence endorsement, a student only needs Excellence credits, as anything lower than this becomes irrelevant and does not contribute to their goal. A student on track to attain Excellence that strings together grades of Merit can slip away from this qualification, as the Merit credits becomes worthless. Therefore, a common technique used by some able students is to not attempt some papers with the intention to pour their efforts into select papers only, as consistency is far less important than assuring that they receive their desired Excellence credits.

Unit Standard Changes

Starting in 2011 and becomming mandatory in 2012 most of the easier Unit Standards have been abolished for conventional school subjects. The acception is for ITO's which are taught in schools. This is in response to the onging criticism that it was patently unfair to give the some credit to a student who had passed all or mostly Unit Standards (set at curriculum level 3-4) compared to a student who had passed all or mostly Achievement Standards which are now set at curriculum level 6. Recognising that many schools have students who could not pass the more difficult curiculum level 6 Achievement Standards, a narrow range of Unit standards have been alloted for the less able learner so they can have a formal academic goal. Students are no longer allowed to do both Achievement standards and Unit standards in the same subject to avoid double dipping. This is likely to lead to a very different pattern of NCEA results for lower decile schools where traditionally students have mainly achieved their NCEA by taking Unit Standards.

Level 1 in Year 12

Normally most school have most year 11 students undertaking level 1 NCEA. A recent trend has started where schools only allow year 11 students to sit NCEA Level 1 if they have a very good chance of passing ie getting the certificate. This has always been allowed under NCEA but schools have only recently realised that using this method will result in a huge improvement in their NCEA level 1 statistics because most students doing NCEA Level 1 are now Year 12 students. This means that the bald statistics that the media commonly use suddenly appear very good. Schools jump from pass rates of 40-46% to 65-75%. Students start a year later on NCEA but start with a culture of success. However the negative side is that students opting into the "late start" can only obtain level 2 at secondary school unless they return for an additional year as an adult student. Some secondary schools are scheduling classes for year 14 students and composite Kuras for up to year 15 students


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