External exams

NCEA examinations take place around November and December each year. Students are assessed against up to three external achievement standards in a three-hour session for each subject.

NZQA Rongotai College Stock 37

Examinations have traditionally been paper-based but NZQA is introducing digital exams that students can sit using a computer because New Zealand schools are increasingly using digitally enabled teaching and learning. This is happening in stages – 21 subjects were offered digitally in 2020 across Levels 1, 2 and 3 (up from 14 in 2019). 

Examination results are normally released in mid-January, and students are able to check their final NCEA results and qualifications on the results section of this website.

Rules and instructions

In term 4, students are provided with a copy of the ‘Rules and instructions for Candidates’, which they must agree to follow. These rules ensure assessment conditions for all students are fair and allow them to present original work. You can download a copy below.

2020 Candidate Information Sheet (English) (PDF, 247KB)

2020 Candidate Information Sheet (Māori) (PDF, 206KB)

Common questions

What do exams look like?

Exams from previous years in both paper and digital format are available from the Resources by Subject section of the website. Assessment schedules, which tell students what markers were looking when marking exams are also available as a reference. 

A walk-through video and a range of hand on activities are also available to teachers and students wanting to get familiar with the way digital exams look and work.

Where do the exams take place?

Generally, students sit exams at allocated exam centres. If there is a good reason why a student cannot sit all their exams at their exam centre, they must talk to the their Principal's Nominee who will contact the School Relationship Manager by 14 August to discuss any change. After 14 August, there has to be a very good reason for any change to where a student sits their exams. If this is the case, the school needs to contact the NZQA School Relationship Manager.

Can the exam be done in te reo Māori? 

Both English and te reo Māori are New Zealand's official languages. Unless specifically excluded by the assessment specifications, candidates can present their answers in te reo Maori in external assessments. NZQA will contract markers or assistants to markers to facilitate the assessment of candidates who have answered in te reo Māori. In most subjects, candidates can request the exam booklet in te reo Māori until 31 July.

I need Special Assessment Conditions. How do I apply?

Students may be entitled to receive Special Assessment Conditions (SAC) in exams if they have sensory, physical, medical, and/or learning difficulties/disabilities.

More information on SAC and the application form can be found here.

What happens if a candidate can’t sit the exam?

Candidates who through illness or misadventure have been prevented from sitting exams, or who consider that their performance in an external assessment has been seriously impaired because of exceptional circumstances beyond their control, may apply to NZQA to be awarded a derived grade. A derived grade is based solely on the student's pre-existing standard-specific evidence held by the school.

For the policy, process and application form for a derived grade see Derived grade process guidelines.

How are exams created and marked?

NZQA's exam-setting process takes approximately 18 months. The exam paper is written according to the requirements of the standard being assessed and within the boundaries of the assessment specification (defines the scope of subtopics that could be assessed and explains the conditions of the examination). NZQA editors format the paper as an exam booklet and also into a digital format for online examination (where applicable). The examination is reviewed by at least three critiquers and a corresponding assessment schedule is developed. The assessment schedule explains how grades are allocated in terms of the evidence provided by the candidate. If required, the examination is translated into te reo Māori.

For a diagram of this process, see NZQA Examination Development Process (PDF, 152KB) (PDF, 158KB).

From 2013, Grade Score Marking has been used to mark all NCEA examination papers. The Profile of Expected Performance (PEP) for an externally marked standard is produced each year as a guide to Marking Panel Leaders. The PEP does not set a pre-determined target for results but allows monitoring to take place to ensure the examination of the standard is consistent and not easier in one year than another. The PEP is based on historical trends, analysis of other statistical information and the professional experience of contracted Examiners and Panel Leaders, as well as NZQA National Assessment Facilitators. The PEPs are shown on the NZQA website from early November each year as graphs. The graphs show the expected performance for each grade (eg. a bar from 10-16 for Merit shows the percentage of candidates gaining Merit is expected to be between 10% and 16%). For valid reasons, such as improved examination format, results may be outside the PEP. For an overview of the marking process, see NZQA Examination Marking Process (PDF, 148KB) (PDF, 99KB).

Are exams and portfolios returned to candidates?


How material will be returned

If it is not returned

Any other information

NCEA booklet packs

To candidates from mid-January onwards, region by region, by mail. All returned before mid-February.

Candidates should Phone 0800 697 296


Marked digital exams

Made available to candidates at the same time paper-based exams are distributed.  These will be accessible online until 30 June.


NZ Scholarship booklet packs

To candidates in mid-February by mail. All returned by end February

Candidates should Phone 0800 697 296


NCEA Technology folders

To schools at end of January, by courier

Schools should Phone 0800 697 296

Copies of reports should be saved and secured at school before submission so that if a report gets lost a copy can be accessed.

NCEA Design and Visual Communication

To schools at end of January, by courier

Schools should Phone 0800 697 296


NCEA Level 3 and NZ Scholarship Visual Arts

To individual candidates from late November onwards, by courier. All returned before Christmas.

Candidates should Phone 0800 697 296

Schools should photograph portfolios and copy workbook pages before submission and retain these.

NZ Scholarship Technology folders

To schools in mid-February, by courier. All should be returned the end of February

Schools should Phone 0800 697 296


NZ Scholarship Dance

Portfolios are not returned to candidates


Portfolios are retained at NZQA and accessed if a reconsideration is applied for

NZ Scholarship PE

Portfolios are not returned to candidates


Portfolios are retained at NZQA and accessed if a reconsideration is applied for

NZ Scholarship Drama

Recordings are not returned to candidates


Recordings are retained at NZQA and accessed if a reconsideration is applied for

NZ Scholarship Languages - recordings

Recordings not returned to candidates.


Recordings are retained at NZQA and accessed if a reconsideration is applied for

Missing results: NZQA has a process for managing missing results. If we have evidence that the candidate attended the exam and handed in the booklet, or submitted work digitally, the school will be contacted in February, following reviews and reconsiderations. The school will be asked to provide a derived grade, after speaking with the candidate.


How does a candidate apply for a reconsideration?

After looking closely at their answer booklets or portfolios, a student may want to apply for a review or reconsideration of their  results.

To do so, a student must not have altered or added to their answer booklets or portfolios in any way. Answer booklets or portfolios that contain correcting fluid or pencil will not be eligible for review or reconsideration. They may be investigated as a breach of examination rules and some or all of their results may be cancelled.

  • In a review all sections of a booklet or portfolio are checked to make sure they have been marked and results correctly recorded and transferred. A review does not involve re-marking. There is no charge for a review.
  • If a student thinks their answer booklet has not been assessed (or 'marked') correctly, they can apply for a reconsideration. A reconsideration involves reassessing all answers in the answer booklet using the original assessment schedule, in other words, re-marking it. It also involves checking mechanical processes, like transferring grades. 
    NCEA reconsiderations cost $20.40 for each standard. The fee for Design and Visual Communication (DVC) and Technology portfolios is $20.40 for each external achievement standard, not each portfolio. Where the reconsideration leads to a change of final grade the fee is refunded.

If a student completed any external assessment digitally, they do not need to send a copy of their submitted work with their review or reconsideration application.

If their assessment was not produced digitally, their paper submission must be sent to NZQA when they apply for a review or reconsideration.

A review or reconsideration may take up to six weeks to process. If the outcome of the student’s application might affect University Entrance, the student will need to let their chosen university know it may take six weeks for any updated results to become available.

Students can monitor the status of their reconsideration request using the My Orders link in the Learner Login main menu.

More information

Information for students

Examination Timetable

Breaches of exam rules

Getting ready for digital exams

Grade Score Marking

Managing exam pressure

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