NCEA Online Q and A

Below are some of the common questions regarding NCEA Online. If you have a question that is not covered here, please email

What is happening?

What is NCEA Online?

NZQA is introducing digital exams - that students can sit using a computer rather than using pen and paper - because New Zealand schools are increasingly using digitally enabled teaching and learning.  NCEA assessments need to reflect these evolving practices and students need to develop digital skills for life and work in a world where technology is always at their fingertips.  Furthermore, students are saying it is the way they like to work.

NZQA is adopting a staged approach to the NCEA Online programme.  We are working with schools and students to ensure the technology delivers a good user experience. 

Schools are at different stages in their approach to digital teaching and learning, so digital assessment needs to be in sync with that. Paper-based exams will continue to be available as schools transition to digital teaching and learning.

What's different this year from the past few years of Trials and Pilots?

This year students will be able to sit 14 NCEA external exam subjects at different levels using digital devices.  This is the next stage in delivering NCEA Online, after four years of digital Trials (that did not count towards NCEA) and digital Pilot exams (that did count towards NCEA) in English, Classical Studies and Media Studies.

From 2019 digital exams will be available in an increasing number of subjects.   To support that move students choosing digital exams will continue to have a personalised paper as a backup.

Paper based exams will also continue to be available for all subjects as the transition to digital assessment takes place over the next few years

This year NZQA will not be offering digital Trial exams. If for any reason a student needs to apply for a derived grade, after entering a digital or paper exam, schools will use assessments completed during the year.

How are you using the information from the previous years of Trials?

We used these Trials to test what works and doesn’t work. Students’ results for Trials did not count towards their NCEA results so they were a great opportunity to gather input from students and teachers, and design what works best.  We were able to try innovations while providing schools and students with opportunities to experience a digital exam. The feedback helped identify the areas where innovative approaches may work well in the future, and where there is more work to do.  

How are you incorporating the suggestions made by students and teachers?

To design a great user experience, the NCEA Online team and our suppliers are using feedback from previous years, ongoing design sessions with students, teachers, principal’s nominees and exam centre managers, as well as researching what is happening internationally.  Some new features won’t be ready this year but we anticipate having more in place in 2020.

How many students and schools participated in digital exams in 2018?

Approximately 8,000 students from 52 schools nationwide entered digital NCEA exams for Levels 1-3 English, Media Studies and Classical Studies, a 60% increase on 2017.  Since 2014, around three quarters of New Zealand secondary schools and well over 30,000 students have experienced at least one digital exam through NZQA’s digital Trials and Pilots project.

Why – the rationale

Why does NZQA see online assessment as the future?

Digital learning teaching and assessment helps students prepare for how they will work, live and continue to learn in the 21st century. Students use technology for much of their learning and it doesn’t make sense for students to complete their exams using pen and paper if that's not how they are used to learning. Students tell us this is how they want to sit their exams. NCEA Online is working to align assessment with the way students use (and will continue to use) electronic devices every day. 

Will digital assessment improve educational outcomes?

Digital assessment will provide better data and insights about how students respond to questions.  This will be useful for teachers designing classroom learning and will help in developing future exam questions so students can best show what they know and the skills they have learned.

Does digital assessment provide more equitable opportunities for Māori and Pasifika students?

Digital assessment has the potential to improve the equity of NCEA outcomes for Māori and Pasifika students. For example, personalised learning pathways that include digital assessment have the potential to engage more students in new ways more relevant to their individual needs and their culture.

Why is NZQA introducing digital exams when some schools are not yet ready to teach and assess in this way?

We recognise schools are at different stages in their approach to digital teaching and will continue to offer paper-based exams as schools transition towards digital education.

Can digital assessment assist students who apply for special assessment conditions?

Digital exams provide some level of Special Assessment Condition (SAC) accessibility. Over time, we will add to the current accessibility and usability options of spellcheck, font changes and resizable screens.

Students who do not currently qualify for SAC (or have not applied) already see benefits in the features of digital exams. Assistive technologies e.g. text to speech – for both questions and answers - will be trialled in 2019 with the aim of making it available to all students. For more information on Special Assessment Conditions see here.

When - the timeframes

What is the roll-out timeframe?

NZQA has been making digital NCEA exams available in stages, starting with four years of digital Trials and Pilots between 2014 and 2018.

In 2019, 14 subjects - representing about one third of NCEA exams (35 assessment sessions) - will be available online, with more planned to be added in 2020.

From 2021, NZQA will look to deliver more digital exams, more developed specifically for a digital platform and  more innovation being incorporated into the digital exams.

Which subjects are available as digital NCEA exams in 2019?

NZQA aims to deliver 14 text-based digital exam subjects in 2019, comprising 35 exam sessions across levels 1-3:

Agricultural and Horticultural Science (L1-3)

Art History (L1-3)

Business Studies  (L1-3)

Classical Studies (L1-3)

Education for Sustainability (L2)

English (L1-3)

Health (L1-3)

History (L1-3)

Home Economics  (L1-3)

Latin (L1 and 2)

Media Studies (L1-3)

Social Studies (L1-3)

Te reo Māori (L1)

Te reo Rangatira (L1)


What subjects will be available as digital NCEA exams after 2019?

NZQA will further expand the range of subjects in 2020 and beyond. Not all subjects will be available digitally in 2020.  Digital exams are being offered progressively, at a pace that reflects the readiness of the education sector and the availability of technology to support a good student experience. For example, we will look carefully at the different requirements of those subjects where special characters are required, such as mathematics, science and music. We are currently investigating the student experience and technical requirements for delivering foreign language exams digitally.

We will continue working with schools, students, educators and other experts in the wider sector to ensure the technology delivers a good user experience for each subject before it is offered as a digital exam that counts towards NCEA grades.  Input from the sector is helping us to ‘get it right’.  While schools transition towards digital education and exams, we will continue offering the paper-based exams.   

Is there a time when exams will be digital only?

There is no specific timeframe for removing NCEA paper-based assessment. Schools are at different stages in their approach to digital teaching and learning and digital assessment needs to be in sync with that. We will continue to offer paper-based exams while schools transition towards digital education and exams.

How - including training and getting ready

What support is there to help schools and students prepare for digital exams?

NZQA is developing the external digital assessment services alongside schools, students and the wider education sector. We are helping teachers, exam centre managers, supervisors, markers and NZQA staff who support the exam development, delivery and marking to get ready for digital exams.

Schools will be supported by NZQA and prepared for digital exams through:

  • Practice activities – so students can experience the digital exam technology before exam day and see what the exams will look like and how to use the software.
  • Previous NZQA exams – digital versions of the 2018 NCEA exams for the 14 subjects (35 digital sessions) on offer in 2019 will be available for practice and to see what each subject will look like. These won’t be available to use for derived grades and students won’t be able to save their answers in the exam software.
  • School readiness – helping school staff and others assess school and student readiness for digital exams.
  • Training – providing exam centre managers, supervisors and markers and with the knowledge and skills to administer (and mark) digital exams alongside the paper counterpart.

Will training be available for students?

Digital exams have been designed to be straightforward to use. To help students check how their device works with the digital exams, from the start of Term 3 they can look at previous exams on the NZQA website and try the practice activities.

How best should teachers prepare students for digital exams?

The digital exam format has been designed to be straightforward to use. The practice activities and previous exams will give students a feel for what sitting a digital exam is like. An important part of the preparation is that students are familiar with learning online.

Technical requirements

What are the technical requirements for digital exams?

Digital exam technical requirements can be found here.

How will NZQA ensure there are no technical problems?

The focus for NCEA Online is on a staged approach. We design, test and evaluate each new enhancement, and work with schools so they can carefully prepare.  That involves everything from schools testing their internet connection, to ensuring students have access to suitable devices and know how to use them. NZQA also works with schools to help ensure exam centre managers and supervisors have the right knowledge and skills to support students during exams. 

There have been and may continue to be technical issues – it is a normal part of introducing any new major technical change. For this reason, the system continues to be tested and evaluated thoroughly and  paper back-ups will remain available, as well as having other fall-back plans in place to ensure no student will miss out.

What approach should schools adopt in the use of devices?

School boards of trustees decide what devices their schools use, when and how they use them, and who owns them. Some schools purchase class sets of devices; others run bring-your-own-device (BYOD) programmes; and others work with local trusts to establish affordable lease-to-buy arrangements.  Some schools specify the kind of device they want their students to use to best support their course delivery. Specifying a device can make it easier for teachers to manage and integrate devices for all students’ learning.

The Ministry of Education provides guidance on planning, resourcing and managing digital devices in schools. The Enabling E-Learning website provides educators and students with examples of effective practices at the school level, information about software and licensing, and details of options for developing policies at the school level, including policies for acceptable use.

Exam day

Will students be advantaged or disadvantaged depending on the type of exam they sit?

The digital exams in 2019 are electronic copies of the paper. The same resources and questions are presented to students completing either the paper or electronic versions. Students will demonstrate the same knowledge and skills whether they complete the paper or digital exam. As in previous years, in 2019 all students entered for a digital exam will have a personalised paper available as a backup.

What typing ability do students need to successfully engage with digital exams?

Students will need to be able to type their answers. Most are consistently using technology, from primary through to secondary school and their everyday life outside of school. By Year 11, most students know their way around an electronic device and will be able to type their exam responses.

Exam questions are not designed to test digital literacy or typing speed; they are designed to assess critical reading and thinking. NZQA discourages schools from entering students for digital exams if they are not familiar and comfortable with the device they will be using in this context.

What other skills will students need to undertake digital exams?

Care has been taken to ensure sitting the exam doesn’t need special training, though students are expected to do practice activities allowing students to experience the features within digital exams before sitting the real thing.

The look, feel and features like scrolling and navigation are familiar to those who use the internet every day. The key computer skills students require to participate are:

  • reading the screen and navigating webpages
  • tapping/moving cursor to locating and select
  • typing an answer
  • using word processing.

Can students copy content from source texts and ‘paste’ it into their responses?

Yes, information from the digital exam can be copied and pasted, but students will not be able to navigate outside of their exam to copy and paste content.

Can students access an electronic spell checker?

Yes, for some subjects where specialist terminology is not used. For example, to date, a spell check has been available in the digital Pilots for English, Classical Studies and Media Studies but not in the digital Trials of Science or Physics.

Can students change the font sizes of their response?

The student can use the zoom in/out features so they can read their responses easily.

How will students be prevented from cheating in a digital exam?

Digital exams are set up to ensure students cannot access the internet and other information outside the exam. Text cannot be copied from outside the exam browser window. If a student navigates outside their exam window, they, and their supervisor, will receive a warning. They will be locked out of the exam if they continue.

What happens if the exam session needs to be extended?

An exam supervisor may enter extra time, and the clock on the student’s device automatically reflects this. 

Can students login to their exam before the exam start time?

Exams are opened one hour before the exam start time so students can log in and get to the holding screen.  They can’t access exam content until the supervisor gives access.

How often is work saved?

Work is automatically saved every 30 seconds and when the student moves between screens within the exam.

What if there is a power and/or network outage during an exam?

NZQA and schools ensure students are not disadvantaged, such as applying derived and emergency grades. Exam centre managers are experienced in managing issues that may occur during an exam setting, such as a fire alarm. IT managers will support them to decide how to deal with a network outage. If the outage is minor, students may get additional time to complete their digital exam. If the outage is major, students may need to continue their exam using the paper version.

What happens if a student’s device fails during an exam?

No student will be disadvantaged if their device stops working during a digital exam. In the case of interruptions, exams can be paused while technical support is provided and resumed as required with no time lost. If a device stops working, all responses will have been saved and the student can resume on another device as required with no time or work lost.  If no other device is available, the exam supervisor will note how much time was taken for the student to switch to paper and grant additional time at the end of the exam.

Can students switch to paper during exams?

Yes. Paper exams will  be available as an option for any student who wishes or needs to switch from digital to paper during an exam. A student can choose to move to paper at any time before or during the exam.  If they have started a standard online, they are encouraged to complete the standard digitally before moving to the next standard on paper.  If they choose to switch to paper the rest of the exam must be completed on paper. They will not be able to switch back to the digital exam.

Can students access special assessment conditions for digital exams?

Yes. Eligible students can access a range of special assessment conditions including extra time, rest breaks, the use of assistive technology and other provisions. For more information on Special Assessment Conditions go here.

How do digital exams cater for students who have trouble reading text on-screen?

Digital exams allow students to zoom in and out for readability.

Will digital exam scripts be available to students?

Digital scripts will be accessible this year until 24 May.


For more information please email:

Page updated: 25 July 2019

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