A panel of education experts says NCEA needs a major public relations campaign to raise limited public understanding of the qualification.
Their independent review said principals felt they were promoting NCEA by themselves and they wanted the New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA) to lead the charge.
The panel considered the success of changes made since 2007 to NCEA, such as introducing merit and excellence grades for the best students.
Their report said the changes had been positive and NCEA was a good qualification, but not everybody knew that, and principals wanted NZQA to do more.
"School leaders think they are acting as the advocates for NCEA and that NZQA should be 'front-footing' the story and being visible advocates for it.
"The panel was told that other qualifications offered by schools have very sophisticated marketing and that it was a challenge to advocate effectively for NCEA when the primary owner - the government - was not leading a coordinated promotion strategy."
The panel's chairperson Peter Gall said there was still a lot of ignorance among the general public about NCEA.
"Certainly some of my friends who are not in the education sector they struggle to understand about NCEA.
"They think, quite mistakenly, that NCEA is all totally internally-assessed work, for example, and that there's not much rigour to it.
"So that's a perception that they've built up based on what they have read. And I think that perception is out there quite widely."
Mr Gall said part of the problem was poor reporting by the media, which over-simplified complex information in an attempt to compare schools' results.
Secondary Principals Association president Sandy Pasley said NCEA needed a lot of PR.
"As principals we have parents say to us that 'oh, my daughter wants to study overseas and she needs Cambridge or IB [International Baccalaureate]' and that is not the case at all.
"NCEA is a qualification that's recognised internationally. It's absolutely important that the general public realise that."
Ms Pasley said schools that offered other qualifications had done a good job of promoting them, and not enough had been done to promote NCEA and its international credibility.
Post Primary Teachers Association president Angela Roberts said from the outside NCEA looked very complicated and parents and employers needed more help with understanding it.
She said the lack of understanding could lead to families and students to making ill-informed choices.
"Kids are making decisions about sitting particular standards or taking particular courses and the conversation is about the number of credits, rather than the pathway that they're going down."
The panel recommended NZQA do more to build public understanding of the need for the NCEA and to help schools promote it.
The qualifications authority said it would be developing a communications plan and was refreshing its NCEA factsheets and mythbusters for schools and teachers.
It said recent initiatives include information programmes aimed at Maori and Pasifika families, and an app for mobile devices that provides key information about NCEA.