A prominent Pasifika principal is "thrilled" that Pasifika students have almost caught up with Europeans in the top two levels of the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA).

Iva Ropati, of Howick College, said he was thrilled but not surprised that the proportion of Year 12 Pasifika students achieving NCEA Level 2 has climbed from 50.5 per cent in 2008 to 80.7 per cent - now just a fraction behind Pākehā students' 84.5 per cent.

"Eventually we'll have Pasifika learners who are achieving as well, if not better, because for all schools in New Zealand they have always had a very strong focus on Māori and Pasifika," he said.

The level 2 achievement rate for Year 12 European students has crept up only slowly from 73.9 per cent in 2008 to 84.5 per cent in the 2017 results released today.

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

Ropati said: "Pacific people have a slightly different position in New Zealand. For Māori they probably have more of a challenge than perhaps for Pasifika people whose identity is pretty strong, unlike Māori who are still having to search for some sort of place."

The data shows the pass rate for Asian students 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.

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The 2017 results show 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.

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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.

Pasifika students have achieved the biggest gains in Level 3, up from 28 per cent of Year 13 Pasifika 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 Pākehā (70.4 per cent).

They have also made substantial gains in UE, up from just 22.3 per cent of Year 13Pasifika 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).

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 46.4 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.

The country's biggest 10 schools, excluding those where most students sit Cambridge and other exams instead of NCEA, illustrate the persistent gap. UE achievement rates range from 84 per cent of all Year 13 students (86 per cent of those who attempted it) at decile-9 Westlake Girls High School down to 33 per cent (39 per cent of those who tried) at decile-1 Manurewa High School.