NCEA can be an confusing system to get your head around at the best of times. Gone are the days of the old-school “A’s, B’s and C’s” grades. Now, it seems like there’s a million ways to pass a subject, and multiple requirements your child needs to fulfill to move on up the school ladder.

But if we don’t understand the system, how are we ever going to help our children succeed within it? It’s so important for teenagers to feel understood at school, especially if they’re struggling as it is. This isn’t only critical to their grades, but also their mental wellbeing.

Below, we break down NCEA into its simplest components – so that the next time your child comes to you crying about an “N/A” grade, or celebrating having received a Merit on their Biology test, you’ll know exactly how to respond.

Understanding “Standards”

The main difference between NCEA and IB is that in NCEA, a topic is broken up into mini-topics. These are called “standards”.

A standard is a small piece of work, in the form of a test or an assignment.

Every subject is made up of a number of internal standards (assignments throughout the year) and/or external standards (exams).

For example, if the subject is L1 Maths: the class might be made up of six standards: numeric reasoning; right-angled triangles; linear algebra; tables, equations and graphs; geometric reasoning; chance and data.

Standards vary depending on the school and subject. Schools get to pick which mixture of standards make up a full subject – this is why kids from different schools often get assigned completely different assignments, even though they might be doing the same subjects.

Understanding “Credits”

For every standard that a student passes, they will receive a certain number of credits.

The best way to think about credits is that they are like points. If you accumulate enough points, you can pass your NCEA level and move onto the next one.  

To pass NCEA L1, a student needs to accumulate 80 level one credits throughout the year. To pass NCEA L2 and NCEA L3, a student only needs to accumulate 60 credits.

Students will always be given the opportunity to get more credits than they need to pass – so that if they fail an assessment, they won’t have to stay back a year.

Let’s say your child is in NCEA L1 English, and they get assigned an internal standard, a piece of creative writing, worth 4 credits. They complete the assignment, and received an “Achieved” grade for it. This means they’ve successfully received 4 credits, which contributes to their overall total. They now only have to get 76 more credits in order to pass NCEA Level One.

Understanding “Endorsements”

With NCEA, it’s not just the number of credits that matters, it’s the quality too. Passing an NCEA Level is an achievement, but passing with a Merit or Excellence endorsement is an extra accolade.

With each NCEA standard a student completes, they’ll receive one of three grades for the quality of their work.

Achieved – a basic pass, probably around a “C” according to the old-school system.

Merit – standing for a “B” range grade.

Excellence – very top, A – A+ Level.

Everytime a student receives credits for an assignment, they’ll get a certain type of credit (Achieved, Merit or Excellence).

In order to pass NCEA Level 1 endorsed with Merit, your son would have to receive 50 credits at Merit level or higher, and then 30 more at any level (80 total).

The same goes for Excellence. If your daughter wanted to get NCEA L1 Endorsed with Excellence, she would have to receive 50 credits at Excellence level, and then 30 more at any level (80 total). 

To add another layer, students can also get endorsements in individual subjects.

To get an endorsement in one subject, a student needs to have 14 credits at that Merit or Excellence Level, and at least some of those credits have to come from an external standard (exam).

So for example, if Jonny got 14 Excellence credits in English throughout the year from internal standards (assignments), but did not get any Excellence grades in his externals (exams), he would not endorse that subject with Excellence.

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One more thing…

NCEA is not the be-all or end-all of your child’s education. Even if they fail everything, there are ways to still get university entrance, repeat a year or take alternative routes to a successful and fulfilling career.


This means that it’s meant to be difficult and dynamic, different for every student, and also provide opportunities for kids to succeed outside the typical learning mould. Don’t take it too seriously if your child has failed an assessment or underperformed in a subject. Make it clear that making an effort is important, but don’t compound their stress by scolding them for receiving a bad grade. These points aren’t the be-all-or-end-all of your child’s education, they’re more geared towards building the skills and the mindset to thrive in a fast-changing world.

If you and your child can approach the system this way, their education is going to be a whole lot more fulfilling for you both.

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