The Education Minister says 2021 NCEA grades released today are broadly in line with previous years - a result he called "encouraging" amid the disruption caused by the pandemic.
Provisional NCEA results were up on 2019 but slightly down on results from 2020, when some questioned whether the grading process had been too generous.
Results went live on the NZ Qualifications Authority website this morning, with more than 160,000 students keen to see how they had fared.
NZQA expected, based on provisional data, that overall attainment across NCEA levels 1, 2 and 3 as well as University Entrance would be slightly lower than 2020 but higher than 2019, NZQA deputy chief executive Andrea Gray said.
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"This suggests the interventions put in place to support students following lockdown last year were largely successful."
Those interventions included a two-week delay to external exam and assessment dates as well as bonus credits.
Students in Auckland, Waikato and Northland were worst affected, spending a large part of the year learning from home thanks to the August lockdown.
In recognition of the difficulties they faced, they were made eligible for Unexpected Event Grades (UEGs) , meaning they could choose to skip external exams and gain marks based on internal assessments and mock exams.
Many did so - in Auckland, Waikato and Northland students were absent for 43.2 per cent of externally assessed standards in 2021, Gray said. That compared to 2020 when the rate was 10.7 per cent.
Nationally, the absence rate was 27.3 per cent in 2021, compared to 11.5 per cent in 2020.
Gray said the authority always expected students to attend exams where possible, but had anticipated Covid-19 would have "a considerable impact on attendance".
"Students worked hard to overcome the impact of lockdown, with outstanding support provided by teachers and whānau."
Education Minister Chris Hipkins said there was no doubt Covid had put some students under extra stress, but students had also received a lot of extra support.
"The results that they've achieved are broadly in line with previous years. Given the level of disruption that they experienced, that's a really encouraging thing."
Principals spoken to by the Herald had not had a chance to look at their schools' NCEA data in depth today.
But they felt it would not make sense to compare results from Auckland, Waikato and Northland with the rest of the country.
Auckland Secondary School Principals' Association president Steve Hargreaves said mechanisms like UEGs and learning recognition credits would play out differently across regions, deciles, schools and subjects.
Given how tough last year was, the Macleans College principal was advising students to look to the future rather than worrying too much about grades.
"If I've got a student that approaches me and says they're a bit disappointed with their marks, I'm saying 'Look, can you carry on to your next port of call?'", Hargreaves said.
"You can't put everything on those results and try and say that will determine your educational pathway. Hopefully they've got results that will allow them to pursue the next step."
Even now some students would be resubmitting work or catching up until early February, he said.
NCEA results had been pushed to the back of many principals' minds because they were focused now on how they would cope when Omicron arrived in their school community, he said.
A spokesman for NZQA said regional data had not been analysed in depth and it would still be provisional, as students could still ask for their papers to be reviewed or reconsidered once they viewed them online from January 31.
Extra results could also still come in from summer school programmes and schools could yet submit corrected or late-reported internal assessment results.
A full analysis of the results will be completed in April and published in May as part of NZQA's annual statistics report.
Anxiety over after disruptive year: 'It feels too good to be true'
Thanks to UEGs, many students already knew what their marks would be when they logged in to the NZQA website.
Mt Roskill Grammar student Sylvia McDougall already knew she had achieved excellence in all her subjects through internal assessments and mock exams.
So she skipped her NCEA exams to focus on studying for Scholarship English and calculus.
Despite knowing she had good grades in the bag through UEGs, the 17-year-old admitted to some anxiety before logging into the NZQA website today.
"It's a weird feeling to not have the same fear when waiting for NCEA results. [It] almost feels too good to be true," she said.
Although she didn't need any learning recognition credits, for some of her friends it made a difference in bumping them up a grade.
Some of those who had sat exams to try and improve on their UEG were happy but others had not got all the results they wanted, she said.
"There are other people who were really proud of the work they did throughout the year which led to their UEG grade instead of relying on one exam."
McDougall said was very grateful for all the support she had received from her school, her church community, her friends and her family.
And she said she knew she was privileged to be in a position where she could choose to skip the exams. She had a stable home, and could dedicate all her efforts to studying throughout the year - not worrying about financial issues like putting food on the table.
"I know students who put their jobs over attending school in order to provide for their families."