Understanding NCEA (2nd ed)

Understanding NCEA (2nd ed)

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The newest edition of Understanding NCEA is a must-read for all secondary school students and their parents.

Since the publication of the first edition in 2011, there have been some big changes to NCEA level requirements and to University Entrance.

Don’t get left in the dark.

This second edition explains in plain language just how NCEA works and the updates to it – everything from standards, levels and credits to subject choice. It includes stories drawn from the real-life experiences of more than 100 students who have navigated various NCEA pathways.

This book will help students make the best possible subject choices, avoid potential pitfalls and successfully prepare for further education or training. There’s also a chapter specifically for parents, with the information you need to support your children through NCEA. 

From: Understanding NCEA: A Relatively Short and very Useful Guide for Secondary School Students and Their Parents, by Irena Madjar and Elizabeth McKinley

Chapter 2: If Science is Your Thing


So you want to be a pharmacist, or build bridges that can withstand earthquakes, or work as a physiotherapist, veterinarian, computer engineer or chemist? Perhaps you want to design elegant buildings that are also energy efficient, or you are fascinated by numbers and would like to be a maths teacher. There are lots of possibilities out there for young people with a strong background in science and maths, but you need to plan carefully how to get there. The road through the three years of NCEA will not always guarantee that you will be able to follow your preferred subject choices unless you take control.

In this chapter we will show you what can happen, and what's helpful or not so helpful about the different pathways NCEA provides, by looking at three students interested in science.


When he was 11, Rangi was hit by a speeding car while running to catch the school bus. He ended up in hospital with cracked ribs, a broken leg and lots of cuts and bruises. The doctors had a lot of trouble fixing his knee, and afterwards he spent many weeks having to learn to walk again. He was sore, missing his family and friends, and not all that impressed with being told what he could and couldn't do. The person who made all the difference was a lady called Jenny. She was the physiotherapist who came to see him every day and helped him to breathe and cough (even though it hurt a lot) so his lungs and ribs would heal properly. And she put him through the exercises he needed to get his knee moving so he could walk again.

Two years down the track Rangi is the local mountain bike champion and not a bad rugby player either. But he is also passionate about becoming a physiotherapist, helping other people with injuries to walk again, or helping people like his granddad's sister use their arms and legs after a stroke. It would be really awesome to specialise in sports physiotherapy and help a team like the All Blacks avoid injuries and recover quickly. You get to travel and meet interesting people all the time.

Rangi is full of dreams and plans, but he has also done his homework on what it would take to become a physiotherapist. You have to understand how the human body works, in every little detail, but you also need to know how to talk to all sorts of people and how to motivate them and get them to do things even when it's hard or it hurts a lot. (Jenny was very good at that!) Rangi started planning his NCEA pathway before he got to Year 11, and is quite clear what he needs to do at school so that in three years' time he will be able to enrol in a university to study physiotherapy. At his school, students are required to take five subjects and Rangi chose the following.


Rangi could have chosen chemistry or physics or biology in place of general science. But overall he made very appropriate choices and was well prepared for the next level of study in Year 12.


Although Rangi continued with his sports as extracurricular activities, in Year 12 he decided to concentrate on the science subjects, to get the best possible preparation for later study in physiotherapy. For Year 13 he chose the following subjects.

table table

That was the plan! Rangi did change his mind about one or two subjects along the way (opting for statistics rather than calculus, and drama rather than English in his final year), but he was pretty well set on a path he needed to follow. It helped that his older sister, who was studying to become a teacher, kept encouraging him to go for it. He knew that he had to get enough credits and do well each year. His aim was 20 or maybe even 24 credits in each subject, and at least half of them with Merit or Excellence. He figured there were only so many places in Year 13 classes like chemistry, or in a physiotherapy programme at university. So the better he did in each subject, the better his chances of getting in and advancing to each new level of study.

Rangi chose a fairly narrow educational path, focusing mostly on science subjects. That worked for him because he was very clear from the beginning where he wanted to go and what he needed to achieve to get there. He finished high school with 122 credits in approved subjects, quite a few with Merit and Excellence. That meant that he was prepared for a degree in physiotherapy, but also, if he wanted to, for university study in other health sciences such as pharmacy, nursing, medicine or occupational therapy. If he had changed his mind about the health science field he could still have applied to study in other areas of science such as chemistry, agriculture or even chemical engineering.

Even though it did not happen, Rangi could have had a complete change of heart and decided to study psychology, law or international business. He would not have been as well prepared in terms of specific subjects, but he could still have made a successful transition to university study. What really mattered was that he selected subjects approved for UE, worked hard, did really well at school, developed strong study skills, and gained confidence that he could achieve anything if he worked for it.


Born in Samoa, Leilani came to New Zealand when she was nine. Her parents wanted their four children to have better educational opportunities, so a lot was expected of Leilani. She knew she would be expected to go to university, but she was not at all clear what she wanted to study or indeed what kind of career she wanted to have. The family talk was always about how important doctors and lawyers are, but Leilani thought there had to be something else that she would be good at and enjoy doing. She was a good student, always the first to finish her homework and always keen to learn a new song or a new word (it's fun dropping a word like peripatetic into a conversation instead of saying that someone travels a lot, and you can annoy your brothers when you say it, without getting into trouble for it).

At the end of Year 10 Leilani had a long talk with her form teacher and the message she got loud and clear was, "Keep your options open!" If your mind (or your family) is showing you one way but your heart is far from sure about it, don't feel that you have to decide immediately. Take your time to consider different options—from florist to financial adviser, from doctor to industrial designer, from lawyer to landscape architect.

At the age of 13 or 14 very few teenagers know exactly what they want to do when they leave school, or even what they are capable of achieving if they try. That's normal, and it is OK. But it doesn't mean that you stop learning or you don't think carefully about the subjects you should be studying at school until you have figured out what you want to do with the rest of your life. The final 3 years of high school will determine how well you are prepared for the next step, whether this turns out to be work or further study. Making the best of the educational opportunities the school provides is essential. So how did Leilani rise to that challenge?

Motivation to work and study hard was not a problem. Making the right subject choices could have been. Leilani managed this by speaking with her school career guidance counsellor, double checking different options and asking her form teacher to check she was on the right track. Year 11 was not so difficult because English, maths and science were all compulsory. But she needed to make sure that her Year 10 scores did not land her in classes that sounded OK but were not on the pathway she needed to follow. She did fine in Year 10 but was not quite in the "top of the class" group.

The final 3 years of high school will determine how well you are prepared for the next step, whether this turns out to be work or further study

From Year 11 she needed to be in the academic classes for English and maths, doing the achievement standards, having to sit quite a few external exams, and getting the skills she will need to follow the academic path that will take her to university. It might have been easier to do practical or applied maths, science or English, like some of her friends, but that would have taken her away from the path she needed to follow. This is what Leilani's first year of NCEA looked like.


Having done very well in all her subjects, Leilani still needed good academic advice for the following year. She needed to make sure she kept her options open, because she had not yet decided what she wanted to study once she left school. Science was still her preferred area, but exactly what within this broad field Leilani was not sure. Her Year 12 choices were as follows.


Even at the end of Year 12 Leilani was still not sure exactly what she wanted to study at university, and that made the choice of subjects at school really important. There were quite a few attractive options, such as drama, art and design, photography and hospitality-classes Leilani would have enjoyed doing, and sharing with some of her friends. But she needed to be careful that the subjects she selected did not replace the core subjects of English, maths and sciences she needed to focus on right through her three NCEA years. She was able to add one fun subject every year and still made sure she kept her options open for university study later. Her Year 13 choices were as follows.


One other thing that Leilani discovered was that each year the study was more demanding and she needed to put more time and effort into her homework and preparation for external exams at the end of the year. She might not have been the most gifted student at her school, but she was one of the most determined. Her chemistry, maths and physics teachers encouraged her to sit the Scholarship exams at the end of Year 13. This meant extra study and three more exams on top of the ones she was doing for NCEA. In the end she achieved Scholarship in chemistry and maths (and only just missed out on one in physics).

Leilani had thought a lot about studying to become a science teacher, or maybe a chemical engineer, but after a field visit to a university in Year 13 and talking with some students there she was ready to decide. Her choice: food technology! It was not quite what her parents had in mind, but she was keen to give it a go. It seemed to combine her fascination with science with the whole idea of food and what's in it, but in a practical way, like thinking of all the different ways of processing food to keep it fresh and tasty and easy to use. All she needed to do was convince her parents to let her leave home and move to another city, so that she could attend the university she had chosen that was offering the course she wanted to do.

With the subjects she had selected in Year 13 Leilani was well prepared to study food technology, as well as nutrition and dietetics. In fact, having received a Scholarship in chemistry she found that she did not have to do first-year chemistry at the university she had chosen for her degree studies and could take second-year chemistry instead. If she had chosen to change her direction, she would also have been able to apply for a degree in arts or social sciences (e.g., history, anthropology, psychology, sociology), in health sciences (e.g., optometry, pharmacy or nursing), or in education (teaching).


Jason had a leaning towards science and technical things. Always interested in cars and computers and the latest gadgets, Jason thought that one day he would like to work with computers, maybe even design computer games or work in the information technology (IT) field. But all that seemed a long way off and he didn't appreciate the need to plan a path that would take him there. Somehow he managed to fly under the radar, with no particular adult paying special attention to what he was doing at school. Without older brothers or sisters with university experience, he didn't have anyone who could advise him at a time when he was making his choices.

The first year of NCEA in Year 11 was not too bad. Jason had to take maths, science and English, and he chose computing and metalwork as his other subjects.


Year 12 was the critical year for Jason. With good advice he might have been able to keep his options open. Instead, and even though he had achieved NCEA Level 1 with over 90 credits, he decided to take two further Level 1 subjects — in accounting and hospitality. He thought that accounting might be interesting and that completing some credits in hospitality would help him get after-school work at the local café. Computer technology did not fit into his timetable so he chose sport and recreation instead. His Year 12 subjects were as follows.


Jason worked hard, and even though he did only three Level 2 subjects he achieved enough credits to complete NCEA Level 2. The problem was that by the end of Year 12 he had added another 35 Level 1 credits to his record, which he did not need and which did little to prepare him for tertiary study.

At the start of Year 13 Jason decided that he wanted to go to university the following year, with the hope of getting into a computer engineering programme. His Year 12 record made it difficult to get into the Level 3 classes he needed to do. He was fine with English, but did not have enough appropriate Level 2 credits in maths to get into Level 3 maths with calculus, or to take physics—two subjects that are really important for anyone wanting to do engineering. After his form teacher intervened, he was allowed to enrol in Level 3 physical education and social studies. At least these subjects were on the approved list for UE. His study programme was as follows.


During the year Jason became aware of the poor preparation he had for the subjects he was trying to study in Year 13, but there was nothing he could do about it. He found it particularly difficult to keep motivated in the social studies class and did not sit the external exam at the end of the year.

Jason's experience is not uncommon

By the end of Year 13 Jason had completed only 44 Level 3 credits in total—not enough for the Level 3 Certificate or to give him admission to degree-level studies at university. In terms of his hopes of studying computer engineering, he lacked one essential subject (physics), his preparation in mathematics was less than ideal, and he didn't have enough credits (or the grades) to compete for a place in the university programme of his choice.

If he still wanted to pursue his dream of studying computer engineering, Jason would need to go back to school to complete additional subjects, or complete a bridging programme in a university or polytechnic, and then try again.

Jason's experience is not uncommon. He was a student with no definite goals to work towards, and was therefore not clear about what path to take through the NCEA years. He lacked adult mentors, with his parents unaware that he could have made different subject choices or that they could have been more active in helping him map a path towards university education. Somehow, he also missed getting timely academic advice at school, so it was difficult to make up for the poor choices made in previous years. Academic ability—which Jason had in abundance—was not enough. Good planning, understanding the implications of different subject choices and having access to sound academic advice or counselling are just as important.


It's easy to be wise when looking back. Making the right choices and staying on a solid educational path from year to year is a bit more challenging. So what lessons are there in these three stories for students yet to embark on their NCEA journeys?

  • If you are interested in science, or any job or career with a significant science component, make sure you seek good advice, plan early and stay on track in terms of the subjects you will need to do during your high school years.
  • Make sure you take the right versions of core subjects, such as maths and sciences, that not only include externally assessed standards but are also regarded as prerequisites for more advanced study in subsequent years. And make sure you complete enough credits to meet the subject pass or prerequisite rules your school will have for progression to higher-level study in particular subjects.
  • Maths, and science subjects such as chemistry or physics require a solid understanding of basic principles and laws, and are difficult to pick up at a more advanced level when this basic understanding is lacking. So an early start is essential.
  • Talk with your science teachers or the Head of Science at your school. Make them aware of your interests and plans and ask them to help you plan your studies to ensure that, if you still wish, you will be able to complete the Level 3 maths and science subjects expected of students wanting to go on to study science-based courses at university.
  • Remember that other subjects are also important, and that you might be wise to keep your options open, so studying languages, history, geography, drama, music or sports-related subjects can broaden your perspectives, develop your critical thinking, writing and creative skills, and open other career options.
  • There are people in all schools—such as deans, career guidance teachers, form teachers and student counsellors—who can help you make good decisions.
  • And if at the end of it all you change your mind and move away from science, or even from going to university, your learning will not be wasted. You will draw on the knowledge you have acquired and find ways to put it to good use.

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