Pacific students have almost caught up with Pakeha in the top two levels of the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) for the first time since the qualification was introduced 15 years ago.

National results for 2017, released today, show that the proportion of Year 12 Pacific students achieving NCEA Level 2 has climbed from just 50.5 per cent in 2008 to 80.7 per cent - now just a fraction behind Pakeha students' 84.5 per cent.

In the same period the pass rate for Pakeha students crept up only slowly from 73.9 per cent to 84.5 per cent.

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The Maori pass rate has risen impressively from 51.6 per cent to 74.4 per cent, but still lags behind the other groups.

The pass rate for Asian students is shown as rising from 80.6 per cent in 2008 to an astounding 97.8 per cent in 2017, but this figure is distorted by inconsistent treatment of foreign fee-paying students.

NZ Qualifications Authority deputy chief executive Kristine Kilkelly confirmed that Asian fee-paying students are counted as Asian in the NCEA results, but they are listed separately as "international students" rather than as "Asian" in school roll returns.

She said this would be the last year that results would be reported "using the roll-based statistical measure".

"NZQA and the Ministry of Education have combined information sources to develop an updated measure of NCEA attainment. The change will come into effect in January 2019 for the 2018 academic year," she said.

"We will be consulting schools during June and July on how the new measure should apply when reporting school-level NCEA attainment."

The former National Government set a target of 85 per cent of 18-year-olds having NCEA Level 2 by 2017.

But the new Labour Government's Education Minister Chris Hipkins has said he wants to end school "league tables". He has done that for primary schools by abolishing national standards, and the new NCEA measure may be used to at least soften the league tables for secondary schools based on NCEA results.

Hipkins has also announced a wide-ranging review of NCEA, with a discussion document on potential changes promised this month.

A business thinktank, the NZ Initiative, has called for more external exams to end what it called a "deception" allowing students to pass NCEA with units such as "experience day tramps" which arguably do not give them worthwhile skills for their future careers.

The 2017 results give some weight to these claims, showing a stark difference between high NCEA pass rates and much lower pass rates for University Entrance (UE), which counts only a restricted list of traditional academic subjects from Level 3 NCEA assessments.

Pukekohe High School outdoor education students do an NCEA unit on
Pukekohe High School outdoor education students do an NCEA unit on "experience day tramps" which a business think-tank has criticised. File photo

Overall, Level 3 NCEA achievement rates have risen from 53.4 per cent of Year 13 students in 2008 to 65.7 per cent in 2017.

But UE achievement rates have actually dropped slightly from 50.1 per cent in 2008 to 49.4 per cent.

UE pass rates peaked at 51 per cent in 2013 and dropped to 45.5 per cent in 2014 after the requirements were tightened to align better with university-level skills. They have recovered slowly since then to 49.2 per cent in 2016 and now 49.4 per cent.

Pacific students have achieved by far the biggest gains in Level 3, up from 28 per cent of Year 13 Pacific students in 2008 to 60.4 per cent in 2016 and up sharply in the latest data to 65.3 per cent - again, within striking distance of Pakeha (70.4 per cent).

They have also made substantial gains in UE, up from just 22.3 per cent of Year 13 Pacific students in 2008 to 32.3 per cent.

But UE pass rates in Year 13 have barely changed for Asians (70 per cent in 2008 to 69.6 per cent in 2017), Pakeha (59.2 per cent to 57.3 per cent) and Māori (30.2 per cent to 32.2 per cent).

Only 42.7 per cent of Year 13 boys achieved UE in 2017, compared with 55.4 per cent of girls - both figures virtually unchanged from 2008.

The gap between rich and poor schools has widened. Year 13 students achieving UE rose from 61.1 per cent in 2008 to 65.7 per cent in 2017 for schools in the top three deciles, but fell from 48.7 per cent to 47 per cent in the middle four deciles and rose only slightly from 27.1 per cent to 29 per cent in the lowest three deciles.