The National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) is the major qualification for New Zealand secondary school students. Subjects are broken down into a number of standards, with each standard having a credit value as opposed to a mark. Students achieve credits towards their NCEA qualification at Level 1, 2 and 3 through both Achievement Standards and Unit Standards. Once a total of 80 credits has been achieved, students are eligible to receive an NCEA certificate for that level of study.

The achievement of students in some subjects will be assessed through Achievement Standards. These identify the learning outcomes students must achieve, plus the expected national standards of work. Some of the standards will be assessed internally by subject teachers during the year and some will be assessed by external examination at the end of the year. There are four possible grades students can be awarded: Not Achieved, Achieved, Merit or Excellence. Achievement Standards are typically worth 2 – 5 credits.  Approximately 24 credits are available for each subject.

Unit Standards are internally assessed. Some courses/subjects have a mix of both Achievement Standards and Unit Standards, while subjects which have a high practical content (such as Hospitality or Automotive) are often assessed by Unit Standards. There are two possible grades students that can be awarded for Unit Standards – either Not Achieved or Achieved. Like Achievement Standards, Unit Standards also have a credit value that counts towards the NCEA.

There are three NCEA qualifications – Level 1, Level 2 and Level 3.

  • For students to be awarded NCEA Level 1 they must achieve 80 credits. Of these, 8 credits must be in literacy standards (reading and writing) and 8 credits in numeracy (maths) standards.
  • For students to be awarded NCEA Level 2 they must achieve 80 credits, 60 of which must be from Level 2 standards. There are no literacy or numeracy requirements for this qualification.
  • For students to be awarded NCEA Level 3 they must achieve 80 credits, 60 of which must be from Level 3 standards. There are no literacy or numeracy requirements for this qualification, although there are Level 2 literacy and Level 1 numeracy requirements for entry to degree courses at universities and polytechnics.

To qualify to study for a degree course at a New Zealand university or other tertiary course provider such as a polytechnic you will need at least:

  • Level 3 or higher – 42 credits, including a minimum of 14 credits in each of two subjects from the “approved subjects” list; with a further 14 credits from not more than two additional domains on the National Qualifications Framework or “approved subjects”


  • Level 2 or higher – 8 credits in English or Te Reo Māori; 4 credits must be in reading and 4 in writing. These are selected from a list of Standards fulfilling the literacy (the Reading & Writing) requirement.


  • Level 1 or higher – 14 credits in Mathematics

Credits for University Entrance can be accumulated over more than one year.

NCEA can be ‘endorsed’ if results are of a high standard. For example, a student would be awarded “NCEA Level 1 with Excellence” if they gained 50 credits or more at Excellence. If a student gained 50 credits or more at Merit (or a combination of Merit and Excellence), they would be awarded “NCEA Level 1 with Merit”.

The New Zealand Scholarship qualification is an award that is additional to the NCEA Level 3 qualification. It is assessed through additional external assessments. For more detail on New Zealand Scholarship, click here

In January, the New Zealand Qualifications Authority issues students with an NCEA Record of Learning for each subject. On it will be recorded:

  • The Achievement Standards and /or Unit Standards the student entered
  • The credit value of each standard
  • If the standard is internally or externally assessed
  • The grade achieved
  • The number of credits gained in each standard
  • The qualification gained
  • Whether the certificate is endorsed, with a Merit or Excellence award

One of the positive features of NCEA is that it encourages multi-level study – that is, it is now very common for students to study courses at more than one level of NCEA at the same time according to their achievement profile.