Is your teenager entering NCEA for the first time? Did you go through the old system of School C and Bursary? If so, you may be wondering how NCEA works. It can take a while to get your head around NCEA.

I often get questions from parents trying to understand all the jargon NCEA introduces. Internals, externals and credits are just some of the key terms. Then you need to know how Numeracy, Literacy and University Entrance fit in.

In this article I explain the ins and outs of NCEA. By the end you will understand what your teenager needs to do to achieve these qualifications. You can then have meaningful discussions with your teenager about their education.

What is NCEA?

In 2002, NCEA Levels 1-3 replaced the Sixth Form Certificate and Bursary qualifications high school students used to sit.

The advantage of NCEA is that it makes high school qualifications achievable to a broader group of students. A huge range of subjects are available under NCEA. Early childhood education, home economics, Maori performing arts and sign language are offered, alongside the more traditional subjects like science, math, history and English.

Teenagers interested in a career in the trades, tourism or hospitality can develop the skills needed to gain employment. On offer is also Gateway. This is a unique subject that allows students to achieve credits alongside work experience, by spending one day a week in the workforce. This gives them a better idea of whether they actually want that career in the future. It also gives students an upper hand when it comes time to find a job or apprenticeship.

Huge numbers of students have successfully transitioned from school into stable work and apprenticeships through the Gateway programme.

Students can also gain credits for their achievements outside of school. For example, up to 8 credits are awarded to teenagers who get their driver’s licence. Credits are also available for students in the Cadet Forces.

How NCEA works

NCEA begins in Year 11 and students usually take six subjects. Each subject usually includes internal and external assessments. Subjects offer up to 24 credits; although the amount of credits offered can vary greatly between subjects. To achieve NCEA Level 1, students must gain 80 credits in total. At NCEA Level 2 and 3, students need 60 credits as 20 are brought over from the previous year.

Students get credits when they pass an assessment or hand in a portfolio of work that meets the required level. These assessments are called Achievement Standards.

An Achieved grade is a pass. Students must meet the Achievement Standard’s minimum requirements for Achieved. For a Merit grade they need to show a higher level of understanding or skill. Students can demonstrate a comprehensive understanding of the content, or show superb mastery of the selected skills. If they do this they are awarded an Excellence grade.

Regardless of the grade a student gets, they gain all of the credits available for that Achievement Standard. This could be 2 – 14 credits, depending on the amount of work involved.

What are endorsements?

Students can achieve a Merit or Excellence endorsement in a subjec. For a subject endorsement they have to consistently achieve these grades across multiple Achievement Standards. For a Merit or Excellence endorsement in a subject students must achieve14 credits at either Merit or Excellence. Three of these credits must come from an Achievement Standard assessed in the end of year exams.

Students can also have their NCEA Level 1, 2 or 3 certificate endorsed with Merit or Excellence if they achieve 50 credits, in total, at that level. These 50 credits can come from any of their subjects.

What is the difference between internal and external assessments?

Internal Achievement Standards happen in class, throughout the year. Externals are assessed in the end of year exams.

Most subjects have a mix of internals and external standards available. Students gain a proportion of the credits on offer by completing assessments throughout the year. The rest are awarded when they pass their exams.

Some subjects only offer internal standards. Most schools have an internal and external course available for subjects like math, science and English.

An internal course only offers internal Achievement Standards. Students achieve credits throughout the year by completing assignments or assessments in class or producing a portfolio of work throughout the year.

One advantage of internals is that there are opportunities for students to make minor changes to their work. This is called a resub and is only offered if they are close to higher grade. The teacher decides which students fit the criteria for a resub.

Internal courses are perfect if your teenager does not do well under exam conditions. Internal courses are also great for students who are not confident with the subject and need more support. Students taking mostly internal subjects have a higher workload throughout the year. They will have regular assignments and assessments to hand in. At times, they may have more than one assessment on the same day.

An external course is made up of both internals and externals. Students will have some assessments throughout the year. The difference is that up to half of their credits may come from the externals. These are assessed in the end of year exam. The end of year can be a really stressful time for students. Many rely on their exam results to pass NCEA!

How do students get Numeracy and Literacy?

Students must achieve 10 numeracy credits and 10 literacy credits to achieve NCEA Level 1.

The credits from some Achievement Standards count towards Numeracy and/or Literacy. These Achievement Standards have aspects that require students to demonstrate adequate numeracy or literacy skills.

The internal Achievement Standard 90941, Investigate electricity and magnetism in everyday life, offers four credits that count towards Numeracy. If students achieve this standard, these four credits will count towards the 80 credits needed to achieve NCEA Level 1. They will also contribute to the 10 credits needed to achieve Numeracy.

How do students get University Entrance?

Teenagers planning to attend university in New Zealand will also need to gain University Entrance in Level 3.

To get University Entrance, students need to achieve 14 credits across three approved subjects. Not every subject counts towards University Entrance. Students need to check that at least three of their subjects count, if they want to go to university. They can check this here.

Students also need 5 writing credits and 5 reading credits for University Entrance. Some Achievement Standards at Level 2 and 3 count towards reading and writing credits.

Some university programmes also require students to gain a certain number of credits (usually 14) in specific subjects. Students wanting to study a Bachelor of Science, majoring in Chemistry, must achieve 14 credits in NCEA Level 3 Chemistry.

Setting teenagers up for success in NCEA

Students need to be disciplined about studying all year. This can be hard for them, especially at Year 11. They may not have had exams before and so have not had to keep revising topics consistently. I have listed some resources below that will help your teenager form consistent study habits and improve how they study.

Does your teenager needs help setting up a study plan and timetable?

I recommend they sign up for the free Ultimate Study Planner workshop. This will teach them how to organise their subjects into a list of key points to revise. It also covers how they can create a study timetable they will stick to.

Would you like more information about how you can help your teenager set up a study timetable?

I covered the five key tips for creating a study plan with your teenager in my last article here.

Has your teenager been taught how to study?

Teenagers are much more likely to study if they know how. However, subjects are often packed with information. Teachers have to choose between teaching the content and teaching study skills. Ask your teenager how they study. If they say reading, highlighting or rewriting their notes, then they are wasting their time. These methods just don’t work!

Successful Study Strategies Suited to YOU is an online workshop designed for teenagers. It teaches them how to use effective study strategies and find those that work best for them. You can find out more about the workshop here.

What happens if a student doesn’t achieve NCEA Level 1, 2 or 3?

So at this point you might be thinking but what happens if my teenager doesn’t pass NCEA!

Well the good news is, in most cases, they don’t have to repeat the year. Credits from a higher NCEA level count towards lower qualifications. If a student doesn’t achieve NCEA Level 1 they can still move into NCEA Level 2. The Level 2 credits they gain count toward the 80 they need to achieve Level 1.

Entry requirements for subjects

However, students may not get into the subjects they picked. Some subjects have entry requirements. Students must achieve a certain number of credits at the lower level before they are accepted into the next level. This is so that teachers are confident students will be capable of the work.

The sciences are an example of this. To take Level 3 Chemistry, students must achieve at least 12 credits at Level 2. Some of those credits must come from an external, assessed in the exam.

Sometimes there is an out of the ordinary reason your teenager did not do well the previous year. I recommend going into the school to speak with their Dean, Head of House or the Head of Department. They can make exceptions for students with a genuine reason for not meeting the entry requirements.

NCEA Level 3 is different

Students that don’t achieve Level 3 will need to decide if they want to return to school. Those planning to attend university will likely have to repeat part of Year 13. They may only need a small number of credits. In this case, they may be able to attend for Term 1. They can then enroll in university for the second semester.

A final note on how NCEA works

There are a lot of new words to learn when first starting NCEA and even more choices to make.

With a huge range of subjects on offer it can be hard for a teenager to choose just six. They also have to consider whether internal or external courses are best for them. If they are struggling with these decisions they should talk to a teacher. Some schools have a teacher dedicated to careers who can discuss the impact of their choices on their future options.

The biggest advantage of NCEA is that it creates flexibility. This allows teachers to design courses best suited to the individual needs of students. All students can gain the knowledge and skills they need. This is regardless of whether they want to attend university or enter the workforce.

Hopefully this post has helped you understand how NCEA works. Once you understand how NCEA works, you can engage in meaningful conversations with your teenager and their teachers.

If you have any questions, post them in the comments below and I will answer them.