Boys, Maori and Pacific students have all gained faster than average in the latest results for the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA).
Final results of the 2016 assessments, released today by Education Minister Hekia Parata, show the proportion of students achieving NCEA has risen steadily every year since 2011, when the Government set a target of 80 per cent of 18-year-olds having NCEA Level 2 by this year.
But the gains have been biggest for the three groups that had the lowest achievement rates when the Government took office in 2008: boys, Maori and Pacific students.
Boys' Level 2 achievement rates in Year 12 have risen by almost 15 per cent, from 60.3 per cent in 2008 to 75 per cent in 2016, and girls' pass rates rose by 11 per cent, from 70.5 per cent to 81.7 per cent.
The gains have been much more dramatic for Maori and Pacific students: up 23 per cent and 29 per cent respectively, compared with a 10 per cent gain for European students and a 13 per cent gain for Asians.
Both Maori and Pacific Level 2 achievement rates in Year 12 have risen from just over half in 2008 to three-quarters in 2016, and are now only slightly behind the European rate of 84 per cent.
Parata said her Government had "made it our priority to significantly lift NCEA achievement, in particular for those groups the system was not paying attention to".
She said she was also pleased that achievement rates continued to increase last year despite the disruption of the Kaikoura earthquake, which happened just as the end-of-year exams were starting.
Critics say schools have achieved higher achievement rates partly by directing Maori and Pacific students into "easier" subjects.
However, this has had less effect on achievement rates for University Entrance (UE), which is based on students' level 3 NCEA results using criteria fixed by the universities.
The criteria changed in 2014, causing a sudden drop in the UE achievement rate from 51 per cent of Year 13 students in 2013 to 45.5 per cent in 2014.
The UE achievement rate has still only partially recovered to 48.6 per cent in 2015 and 49.2 per cent in 2016.
Boys have fared worse, with UE achievement rates down 2.2 per cent since 2013 to 42.5 per cent last year, and girls' achievement rates have dropped only 1.5 per cent to 55.3 per cent.
Maori UE achievement is still 2.8 per cent below 2013 levels, at 31.4 per cent, and the Pacific rate is down 4.2 per cent to 30.7 per cent. The European rate has slipped only 1.3 per cent to 57.8 per cent.
The Asian UE achievement rate is the highest, at 66.5 per cent, and is now 0.3 per cent higher than in 2013 before the exam was toughened.
Labour education spokesman Chris Hipkins said the NCEA results should be celebrated.
"Every Government since the 1990s has been working towards that," he said.
He said school careers advice now needed to be strengthened from Year 9 so students understood the NCEA subjects they needed to take to get into the tertiary education, and eventually the jobs, that they wanted.
Full NCEA and UE results for all schools are available on the NZ Qualifications Authority website.