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NCEA jargon: standards, credits and assessments

The New Zealand secondary school curriculum (NCEA) is full of confusing education jargon - subjects, standards, credits, internal assessment, external assessment and so forth. It's hard to understand what your teenager is being assessed on. Here, we break it down to help you better understand.

NCEA plays to the student's strenghts with a mix of internal and external assessments

Students in Years 11-13 are generally required to study at least five subjects each year. Subjects are areas of study like English, Mathematics, Chemistry, Drama and so forth. 

Achievement standards

Achievement standards are an assessment of a student’s skills and knowledge of a topic within an academic-based subject (like Math and English) and reflect the requirements of the NCEA curriculum.

There are a set number of standards per subject. Each standard has a set number of credits that are awarded once a student demonstrates this knowledge. A standard may be in the form or an internal or external assessment. Students will be awarded one of four grades of their assessments within an achievement standard: not achieved, achieved, merit or excellence. 

Unit standards

Unit standards test a student’s competency in a given subject area and tend (though not always) to be associated with more vocational study like Construction or Electronics. Unit standards are assessed in the form of internal assessments. Generally, students can only be awarded an achieved or not achieved grade unlike achievement standard assessments that credit students with not achieved, achieved, merit or excellence grades. 


Credits are the unit value given to each standard. Most standards are worth between three and five credits and subjects generally offer between 18 and 26 credits (this is decided by the school). Students accumulate credits throughout the year with the aim of gaining their level certificate. Each NCEA level has different credit requirements for students to pass.

Literacy and numeracy credits 

Students must also achieve literacy and numeracy credits. Literacy credits reflect a student's writing, speaking and listening skills while numeracy credits reflect their number, measurement and statistical aptitude. These credits can be attained from a range of different subjects. Students must pass a minimum of 10 literacy and 10 numeracy credits to pass their Level 1 certificate. To gain University Entrance, they must then pass an additional 10 literacy credits at Level 2 or higher - 5 reading and 5 writing. Literacy credits do not need to be gained through English, these credits can also be attained through subjects like Biology. History and Economics.

Internal assessment 

Internal assessments are completed throughout the year and are designed by a student's school. Students usually have a set time frame (months or weeks) to complete an assessment rather than a few hours like an external assessment/exam. Internal assessments are very similar to university assessments, preparing students for life beyond secondary school. They may be asked to complete an art portfolio, research report or carry out a scientific investigation.

External assessment 

External assessments (or exams) are held during a set time frame at a set time across New Zealand. Typically there is one external assessment per achievement standard. External assessments require students to recall information and apply knowledge in context and link ideas. 

For more useful information about NCEA download this FREE eBook - Getting to grips with NCEA.

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