Schools are slowly claiming back University Entrance, after a change in the qualification saw a dramatic fall in pass rates in low-decile areas.
In 2014, pass rates based on participation fell to 61 per cent, down from 70.6 per cent in 2013.
Schools swung into action after the dramatic drop - implementing full revision days before exams, warm-up study exercises and creating personalised learning plans for each student.
And it paid off for some schools that increased pass rates by up to 15 percentage points. Overall last year, the rate increased to 63.7 per cent.
The changes meant students must have 60 credits at Level 3, rather than 42, and they must have 14 credits in three approved subjects rather than two. Low-decile schools were hit the hardest by the changes. Up to 50 per cent fewer pupils in those areas made it over the new threshold in the 2014 results.
The data was released this week by the New Zealand Qualifications Authority.
Massey High School had one of the biggest pass rate increases for UE, by almost 15 percentage points.
Jono Taura, deputy principal of teaching and learning, said a number of changes had been implemented at the school that were responsible for the increase. The decile 5 school now has a pass rate of 51.7 per cent.
"We definitely put a big focus on University Entrance last year and the Year 13 in general," he said.
"We have initiated a number of new strategies to help raise achievement at Level 3 and University Entrance."
NCEA Cumulative Achievement Participation %
The table below shows 'percentage of participating students who achieved this qualification by the end of the academic year of interest'.
These included booster days leading up to exams, where a full revision day was dedicated to a core subject; warm-ups before exams, "similar to a sports event", in which pupils would go through basic exercises in the half hour or so before an exam to get them in the right mind set and help calm nerves; academic counselling catered to the individual student; and picking up on students who may be close enough to achieve the level but "at risk" of failing, and working closely with them to ensure they pass.
"We have high expectations here at Massey so we want to push even higher, not only at Level 3 but also at Level 2 and Level 1. So, for us, it's a matter of putting our great results out there but still working hard towards raising all our standards," Taura said.
The stronger pass rate had helped encourage others who may not have considered university before, he said. "Ideally, we want students going to university. We know that university is not for all of our students, but generally we want them going either into a vocation or to university because we know how beneficial that can be to them.
"We're using the success of last year at assemblies. We recognise students who gained excellence at different levels with badges and we also recognise students with an academic tie for academic excellence, so it's just raising the profile of [academic achievement].
"We're hugely into sports and we want the same recognition for our academic students as well, where they're put on the same platform as our First XV rugby players."
The 51.7 per cent pass rate was "a good inspiration for our students", Taura said, "but we want that to be even higher as well."
Decile 4 Tuakau College, which saw one of the biggest drops in 2014, by 30 points, has had a comeback with an increase of 12 points to a 43.1 per cent pass rate.
Decile 1 Tamaki College jumped by 12.4 points to a 26.1 per cent pass rate.
Green Bay High School principal Morag Hutchinson said the school's 12.7 point rise in UE to 61.2 per cent was down to individualised plans for each pupil.
We have really increased our focus strongly on personalising learning programmes for students.
"We have really increased our focus strongly on personalising learning programmes for students, identifying their learning needs, and what pathways they want to go on.
"And where students are identified as heading on a University Entrance pathway, we've put in intensive support to make sure they're doing the right subjects, that they're monitored and checked - a sharp focus on making sure they stay on track through the year, and we believe that has made a huge difference.
"We were also pleased with Level 3 results that have gone up, so it's not just University Entrance. It was across the board, so we're really happy."
High-decile schools were again the top performers for UE. Wellington's Samuel Marsden Collegiate (decile 10), Hawkes Bay's Woodford House (decile 9) and Auckland's St Cuthbert's College (decile 10) were among those achieving a pass rate of more than 97 per cent.
Other decile 10 schools, Wellington's Queen Margaret College, Rangi Ruru Girls' in Christchurch and Iona College in Hawkes Bay also scored high.
Lisa Rodgers, head of early learning and student achievement at the Ministry of Education, said early indications showed improvements in UE nationally and across ethnic groups.
"This is good news," she said.
"We expect this upturn to continue as students and schools get used to the entry requirements, which were well signalled and supported by the tertiary sector."
Analysis was continuing on the data over the coming weeks, she said, and updates would be published later in the year.
Top marks needed
She dreams of becoming a lawyer, so 17-year-old Rawhiti-Whenua Ngataki needs top marks.
The Tuakau teen attends decile 4 Tuakau College. The state co-educational school, 40 minutes south of Auckland, does not usually rank highly in University Entrance exams, last year sinking to a 31 per cent pass rate.
But it has seen improvements, including a 12-point increase in its University Entrance pass rate and a 16.9-point increase in NCEA Level 2. Determined head girl Rawhiti passed NCEA Level 2 in English, maths, chemistry, history, geography and health and credits her school's "good environment" for helping her succeed.
"The support we get from our school was helpful for us doing so well. If you need help at lunchtime they're there for you.
"But I think, too, it's self-motivation. You want to succeed so you're doing this for yourself and your family to make them proud."
The students were pleased with the school's good performance in NCEA last year, she said, and it had buoyed others to believe they could do it too. "They do believe they can succeed and pass, so that's a plus as well."
Change brings wins
The NCEA top performers continue to be the high-decile, private, church-based schools, but some lower deciles have the biggest improvement rates.
Auckland's Sancta Maria College and St Cuthbert's College and Waikato's Diocesan School for Girls all scored over 99 per cent in Level 2 NCEA, considered the most important benchmark for school leavers.
St Andrew's College in Christchurch scored a 99.5 per cent pass rate.
The stand-out performers were Woodford House girls school in Hawke's Bay, which saw 100 per cent of its pupils pass at Level 1, Level 2 and Level 3, with a UE pass rate of 97.7 per cent; and Wellington's Queen Margaret College, where 100 per cent of its pupils passed at Level 1, Level 2 and Level 3, and 97.4 per cent gained UE.
A number of Christian schools and kura achieved a 100 per cent pass rate, but they tend to only have a handful of students at that level. At Rotorua Girls' High School, 100 per cent of its pupils passed at Level 2.
At St Cuthbert's more than 50 per cent of students achieved excellence endorsements at Level 3, followed by 42.4 per cent of pupils at Samuel Marsden Collegiate School in Wellington.
There were dramatic improvements at lower-decile South Auckland schools - some jumping as much as 20 percentage points.
Tuakau College had an almost 17- point increase in Level 2 pass rates, and 92.5 per cent of its pupils achieved the NCEA. Tangaroa College in Otara had a more than 14 point increase, bringing its pass rate to 88.1 per cent. And Sir Edmund Hillary Collegiate pupils achieved a 19.4 point rise at Level 1.
Chris Betty, principal of Tuakau College said it had taken a lot of hard work and dedication from teachers and students.
The school had implemented individual "pathways to success" for each student.
The school had already surpassed the Minister of Education's target of a 85 per cent pass rate at Level 2 by 2018, he said.
The school would now focus on making sure the results were "not just a one off, [but] it's going to continue this year and next year and the next year.
"We want to make sure our processes are embedded in what we do at school."
At Dilworth School, Level 2 pass rates jumped from 86.3 per cent to 97.7 per cent - in line with some of the top schools in the country.
Deputy principal Steve Bushell said a number of factors had contributed to the change, including closer tracking of the boys, but one was a shift in culture, which placed academic achievement on the same platform as sporting achievement.
"[Previously it was] more about passing and just getting over that hurdle [of NCEA] rather than striving for the merits and excellences, and that culture has changed. There's quite a pride in getting those endorsements now."