New Zealand: National Certificate of Educational Achievement Level 3 (NCEA Level 3)

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  • New Zealand

Schooling is compulsory for students aged six to 16 in New Zealand. Most children start school at age five. Secondary education runs from Year 9 (around 12-14 years old) up to Year 13 (around 16-18 years old).

Students generally work towards the National Certificates of Educational Achievement (NCEA) Levels 1, 2, and 3, which can be achieved through instruction in English and te reo Māori.[1]

NCEA is a flexible qualification, catering for all students planning to go to either university or other tertiary study, into an apprenticeship programme, a practical training programme, or work.

Schools can offer multi-level study so students can study a mix of standards at different levels.

Typically, NCEA Level 1 is undertaken at Year 11, Level 2 in Year 12, and Level 3 in Year 13. NCEA Level 3 is taken by an annual cohort of around 45,000 students.

There are no compulsory subjects for NCEA, although most Year 11 students study programmes in English, mathematics and science.

NCEA certificates can be awarded with certificate endorsement and course endorsement(s), vocational pathway awards, and students may also enter additional examinations for the award of New Zealand Scholarship.

[1] Māori are the tangata whenua (the indigenous peoples of New Zealand Aotearoa). New Zealand offers a parallel education system that recognises Māori world views and knowledge.  Wharekura (secondary Māori immersion schools) are for students in Years 9 to 13. Learning is delivered through te reo Māori (the Māori language) and education is based on tikanga Māori (Māori values and principles). The majority of Māori students attend English language instruction schools.

Education context

The minimum requirement for admission to university in New Zealand is University Entrance (UE), which comprises NCEA Level 3 (including 14 credits achieved in each of three subjects from the university entrance list of approved subjects) and literacy and numeracy requirements.

There is no formal entry requirement for non-university tertiary providers, although a number choose to use NCEA Level 3 and university entrance. Any requirements for entry to non-university degree programmes or other tertiary programmes are established at a programme level by the individual providers.

Awarding organisation
  • International

NCEA is designed to acknowledge achievement across the learning areas of the New Zealand Curriculum and Te Marautanga o Aotearoa (the Māori-medium curriculum), and to provide a foundation for further study and employment.

Students are typically required to study between five and six subjects for each level of NCEA. Each subject is assessed against a number of standards. When a student achieves a standard, they gain a number of credits.

NCEA Level 3 is gained by acquiring a minimum of 80 credits, 60 of which must have been achieved at Level 3 or above, and the remaining 20 at Level 2 or above.

From 2014, NCEA Level 3 includes literacy and numeracy requirements.

Subject areas
  • Accounting
  • Agriculture and Horticultural Science
  • Art History
  • Biology
  • Business Studies
  • Calculus
  • Chemistry
  • Chinese
  • Classical Studies
  • Construction and Mechanical Technologies
  • Cook Islands Māori
  • Dance
  • Drama
  • Design (Practical Art)
  • Design and Visual Communication
  • Digital Technologies
  • Earth and Space Science
  • Economics
  • Education for Sustainability
  • English
  • English Language
  • English for Academic Purposes
  • French
  • Geography
  • German
  • Hangarau (Technology)
  • Hauora (Health)
  • Health
  • History
  • Home Economics
  • Indonesian
  • Japanese
  • Korean
  • Latin
  • Lea Faka-Tonga
  • Legal Studies
  • Māori Performing Arts and other Field Māori
  • Mathematics with Calculus
  • Mathematics
  • Media Studies
  • Music
  • Music Studies
  • New Zealand Sign Language
  • Ngā Toi (The Arts)
  • Painting (Practical Art)
  • Pāngarau (Mathematics)
  • Photography (Practical Art)
  • Physical Education
  • Physics
  • Printmaking (Practical Art)
  • Processing Technologies
  • Psychology
  • Pūtaiao (Science)
  • Religious Studies
  • Samoan
  • Science
  • Sculpture (Practical Art)
  • Social Studies
  • Sociology
  • Spanish
  • Statistics
  • Technology
  • Te Reo Māori
  • Te Reo Rangatira
  • Technology
  • Tikanga-ā-Iwi (Social Science)

Note that subjects have been drawn from the NCEA subject resources list and the 2016 approved subjects for university entrance list.


NCEA Level 3 caters for a broad range of candidate achievement, and is set at Level 3 on the New Zealand Qualifications Framework.

NCEA Level 3 has wide international recognition. For details, including project reports, see specific country requirements for the recognition of NCEA overseas.


There are two types of standards, achievement standards and unit standards,which carry grades ranging from (N) Not Achieved, (A) Achieved, M (Achieved with Merit), and E (Achieved with Excellence).

Achievement standards assess the subject achievement objectives in the New Zealand Curriculum and Te Marautanga o Aotearoa, and may be either internally or externally assessed.

Unit standards generally relate to industry training and other non-curriculum-based learning areas. All unit standards are internally assessed.


NCEA assessment is standards-based, with some standards internally assessed and some externally assessed. Credits are awarded for each successful result in a standard, which contribute towards qualifications. External assessment occurs under a national examinations system. In most subjects, students sit an examination at the end of the school year, which covers the externally assessed standards.

Examinations are written and marked by teachers contracted to NZQA for that purpose. All candidates for a subject will sit the examination at the same time, wherever they are. All their work will be marked to the same standard.

Contribution of assessment components to overall grade

Achievement of NCEA Level 3 is based on the results obtained in the examinations and through internal assessment in all subjects studied and assessed during the school year.

Credits gained at one level can be used for (or count towards) more than one NCEA certificate. They may also be used towards other qualifications. Many schools allow students to study a mix of standards at different levels, depending on their ability.

Guided/notional learning hours notes

Students typically study five subjects for NCEA Level 3.

A year’s work in a typical school subject is assessed by approximately 18 to 24 credits, and generally requires 180 to 240 guided learning hours (based on the notional learning time expected for students to meet the outcomes in the standards that make up the subject). One credit represents a notional ten hours of learning, practice, and assessment time.

This qualification does not currently attract UCAS Tariff points.

Key issues for UK HE admissions

NCEA Level 3 is comparable to the United Kingdom GCE A level (refer to previous section for 'Level notes').

Timing of assessments/results for learners

End of year examinations take place over three to four weeks commencing in early November. NCEA results are released online in mid-January annually.

Qualification dates notes

This qualification is current.

Reporting and certification information

NZQA issues the certificates for NCEA Levels 1, 2, and 3.

NZQA publishes annual secondary school statistics, including results for NCEA, University Entrance, literacy and numeracy requirements, NCEA certificate endorsements, course endorsements, and New Zealand Scholarship.

Subjects are made up of standards. A complete picture of the distribution of results for all subjects that can count towards NCEA Level 3 and university entrance can be found in the secondary school statistics consolidated files.

NCEA endorsements recognise higher levels of performance by students. NCEA certificates and courses can be endorsed with Merit and Excellence.

Certificate endorsement at NCEA Level 3 enables students who gain 50 credits with Excellence at Level 3, to gain a certificate endorsed with Excellence. Candidates who gain 50 credits with Merit or Excellence at Level 3, can gain a certificate endorsed with Merit.

Course endorsement enables students to gain Excellence and Merit endorsement in individual courses (subjects). Students receive an Excellence endorsement for a course if they gain 14 credits at Excellence level, while students gaining 14 credits at Merit (or Merit and Excellence) will gain a Merit endorsement. To ensure students are capable of performing well in both modes of assessment, at least three of the 14 credits must be from internally assessed standards, and three from externally assessed standards.

More information on certificate endorsement (NCEA qualification endorsement statistics) can also be found at secondary school statistics consolidated files.

Further information

The NCEA subject resources page provides details of examinations by subject, including past examination papers and marking schedules.

Further information on NCEA.