External exams

NCEA exams 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

Exams have traditionally been paper-based but NZQA offers digital exams that students can sit using a device because New Zealand schools and kura are increasingly using digitally enabled teaching and learning. There are 24 subjects being offered digitally in 2022 across Levels 1, 2 and 3.

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 (English or te reo version) from 18 October 2023.

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 their Principal's Nominee who will contact the School Relationship Manager to discuss any change.

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).

How do students access their exam and portfolio material?

For information about how material will be provided to students look at our return of examination material webpage.

Students will use their NZQA Student Login to view digital exam scripts when results become available. They will also be able to see scanned copies of their paper responses.

How does a candidate apply for a reconsideration?

For more information check out our Reviews and Reconsiderations webpage.

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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