Tauranga students have been left disheartened after facing questions in a major end-of-year exam which some say were "impossible" to answer.

NCEA Level 1 maths has for the second year included questions that baffled even brightest students.

Teachers and students said the exam included duplicate questions, more complex problem solving and testing work not taught in the syllabus.

Josh Martin said his 15-year-old brother, who attended Tauranga Boys' College, had "well and truly" passed NCEA with a merit endorsement for all subjects before exams started.

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"He studied locked away in our office for over 15 hours over the weekend, and many more throughout the rest of study and exam weeks, and went into Monday morning very confident," Martin said.

"When I picked him up yesterday after his maths exam, his face was full of shock, and couldn't believe what he had just been through."

Martin said it took his brother two of the available three hours to complete the first paper, most of which was spent deciphering the questions.

"One of his main goals at the beginning of the year was to have a centurion badge, which is passing every single credit, it seems this will not be due to this maths exam."

An NCEA Level 1 Tauranga student, who wanted to remain anonymous, said the tables and graphs and geometry papers were nothing like students had been preparing for.

"I basically felt like I was in there and I had studied for nothing, even though I had done a total of five hours study for each paper," she said.

The Tauranga student said she had walked out of her maths exam early with tears welling up in her eyes.

"It's not fair on students to be tested on things we simply haven't been taught."

Otumoetai College head of mathematics Jason Ellwood said the maths required to solve problems in all three papers was at the correct level for NCEA Level 1.

However, Ellwood said the tables, equations and graphs and geometric reasoning papers had more complex problem solving and more generic questions. He said there was also a duplicated question in the geometric reasoning paper.

"Considering the shift in the Level 1 Algebra Maths Common Assessment Task paper that we have seen over the last couple of years, this comes as no big surprise. It was, however, not signalled to teachers."

Ellwood said the tables, equations and graphs paper had a strong emphasis on graph transformations, which was not signalled by the New Zealand Qualifications Authority.

He said it felt teachers were expected to guess what would be in the exams leaving them to generate their own set of practice problems which was not feasible.

Aquinas College principal Ray Scott said there was a certain amount of bewilderment among staff and students regarding the maths exam.

"They [staff] are not sure what to expect or what they have to prepare for," he said. "It is not knowing for sure whether they have covered the curriculum or not."

Scott said teachers prepared their students for exams "as best they can". "They try to cover the curriculum and look at the trends of questions over the last year or two."

New Zealand Qualifications Authority deputy chief executive of assessment Kristine Kilkelly said experienced maths teachers set the Level 1 maths exam for the right curriculum level, and was consistent with the specifications for the standard.

"Students may find some questions in examinations more difficult than others, especially those parts of the question aimed at excellence," she said.

"Parts of the examination will be challenging, but students often do better than they expect."

Kilkelly said NZQA annually updated its assessment specifications which this year included changes to the format of exam questions in one of three standards assessed in the Level 1 maths and statistics exam on Monday.

The complaints come after last year's NCEA Level 1 MCAT which proved so difficult students were left in tears.

An investigation into the Level 3 Statistics exam last year revealed the paper wasn't checked properly before it was published and meant a question could not be answered.