The national exam board has received 170 complaints about a controversial year 11 Algebra exam which caused students to break down into tears.

The New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA), which set the NCEA Level One exam, is working through the complaints and responding to each complainant directly.

Principals, teachers and school bodies have questioned NZQA over the exam, writing to the testing agency to complain about the level of difficulty, which some claimed was two curriculum levels too high, and involved new components not seen in previous papers.

Students took the Maths Common Assessment Task (MCat) exam, set by the New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA), on two days two weeks ago.

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The exam required the first-year seniors to apply algebraic procedures in solving problems, and was worth four credits.

Some students reportedly broke down in tears during the exam with many failing to note down any answers or workings out for some of the most difficult tasks in their "shock" at the questions.

Many had hoped for the opportunity to re-sit the exam, or that marking would take into consideration the difficulty.

NZQA has provided a marking schedule for schools to advise them on how to grade the test.

The authority has told the Herald the marking would follow "usual procedures".

"NZQA conducts a benchmarking process for all externally assessed standards prior to the commencement of marking.

"This involves testing the draft schedule with approximately 1000 actual student papers to ensure the schedule provides appropriate consideration of all possible responses from students.

"It would be unusual for a schedule not to be amended through this process as students always provide a wider range of appropriate responses than are covered in the draft schedule.

"The extent of the adjustments to the schedules for the 2016 MCats is consistent with previous years."