School principals say teaching teenagers carpentry and getting adults to mentor them are helping drive up NCEA pass rates.
NCEA exams finish at the end of this week and the percentage of 18-year-olds getting level 2 qualification is getting close to the government's target of 85 percent.
By the end of last year 83.3 percent of 18-year-olds had level 2, an increase of nine percentage points since 2011, the Education Ministry said.
School principals credited trades academies with local polytechnics and ministry-funded mentoring for individual students.
They were tailoring courses and making sure they knew which students were at risk of failing.
Wellington Trades Academy manager Matt Renata said the academy enrolled 240 students a year. About half were at risk of disengaging from school.
He said 75 percent of the academy's students achieved NCEA level 2 last year and it was on track for a similar result this year.
Mr Renata said students attended the academy at either Weltec or Whitireia institutes of technology two days a week and were at school for three days, which appeared to work well for them.
"The mix of a normal school programme and something that's a bit more practical, a bit more hands-on, tends to suit these students."
One of the students, Ryan Ramsay, studied carpentry at the academy and doubted he would have got his level 2 qualification without it.
"I probably would have dropped out of school, not a big fan of school," he said.
Year 12 student Jayden Smith got NCEA level 2 in term two this year, thanks, in part, to attending the trades academy.
"I probably wouldn't have worked as hard, but seeing as we were doing carpentry courses, it's more hands-on, much better."
Zanel Herselman studied hospitality and travel at the academy because she wanted to start working toward her chosen career.
"It's really forced me into doing stuff well," she said.
Christchurch principal Phil Holstein said the achievement rates from partnerships with tertiary institutions were pleasing.
Schools were recognising the student population was diverse.
"Schools now are starting to focus and to have better ways of identifying students that are at risk of not achieving. We've got the names of these students and who they are, then we can actually tailor programmes - and mentoring is certainly part of that," Burnside High School principal Phil Holstein said.
Auckland Secondary Principals Association president James Thomas said NCEA level 2 had become the minimum qualification required of young people so it was important they achieved it.
His school, Whangaparaoa College, looked closely at those who did not get level 1 to make sure they did not fail at level 2.
"I want to know their attendance, their work completion rates, I want to know what music or sports they're involved with. We get to know those kids really, really well to try and work them towards a succesful following year, level 2."
The Education Ministry's deputy secretary of early learning and student achievement, Karl Le Quesne, said the ministry supported more than 2000 students at risk of not achieving.
Five teenagers at Picton's Queen Charlotte College got ministry-funded mentoring Maata Waka. It made a big difference, deputy principal Simon Williams said.
"Their attendance was down, that picked back up ... their self-respect, their manner was transformed."
Mr Williams said four of the five students got their level 2 qualification before exams started.