Published on October 13, 2022
On Wednesday 12th October the Year 12 HSC exams began. The tension in the air was palpable for students, exam invigilators and staff. That morning, on the ABC Breakfast Show, the presenters wished all Year 12 students in NSW good luck and shared an important piece of advice:
It is to be expected that the start of the final exams is scary and all-consuming for students and parents. It also feels extremely high stakes for schools and in this sense the media does not help. Schools (particularly in the independent sector) are measured by their published ranking when HSC results are released. If you are not ranked in the top 150 schools based on your students’ HSC results, then academics are perceived as a problem at the school. All eyes are trained on these rankings and therefore on our Year 12s and how they perform in the examinations. If they don’t do well, rankings slip and schools are judged. This can lead to a high-pressure, competitive environment and schools feeling the need to defend themselves, blame cohorts or take the moral high ground in advocating for inclusion.
As an educator, none of this makes sense. How is it that the complexity of learning, and a journey that spans 13 years of a student’s life, can be reduced to a single number? When parents share with me that they are concerned about academics at HVGS and I ask them about the evidence they are using to make this claim, invariably they cite whether HVGS is ranked in the top 150 schools. This metric is the only tangible one that seems to matter, despite most parents believing (as the ABC Breakfast team do) that a number does not define their child. Why then should it define schools or be the key metric to determine the success of our learners?
Linda Stade, an educational consultant based in Sydney asks this question: “how do we create a greater focus on learning than achievement?” (source) In her blogpost she suggests that a strong focus on ATAR (and school rankings by connection) impact student wellbeing; don’t equip students for the complexity of the workforce and life by devaluing core competencies such as critical thinking and creativity; and contributes to teacher burnout by emphasising a results driven culture. Importantly, this focus also devalues practical and applied learning.
To some extent this is recognised by universities and government leaders. NSW Education Minister Sarah Mitchell said recently in response to HSC changes that enable students to study more vocational subjects and still achieve an ATAR:
In today’s economy we all need analytical, communication and collaboration skills to succeed, regardless of whether we are working as a retail manager, plumber, scientific researcher or politician. … We must start valuing vocational and academic pathways equally, and recognise all students need the skills to thrive in modern workplaces. (Source)
Back in 2021, Sandra Milligan, Director and Enterprise Professor at the Assessment Research Centre at Melbourne University Graduate school of Education, spoke to the importance of redefining success and university entrance metrics: ““How we define and measure success in learning is limiting too many young people’s ability to prepare for their future as current senior certificates and ATAR provide only a partial reflection about who a young person is, what they know and what they can do.” (source) The Melbourne Graduate School of Education even has a dedicated team working with schools to redefine “new metrics of success” so that what happens in schools mirrors what we value in society and in human beings.
This is an issue that countries around the world are grappling with – there is a sea change afoot. In the United States the Mastery Transcript Consortium is working with American and international schools to develop an alternative to the traditional GPA-based transcript:
The Mastery Transcript takes the transcript off the page: from a two-dimensional accounting of student time spent on single subjects and a listing of grades without context, to an interactive digital transcript that highlights mastery of content and interdisciplinary skills. The Mastery Transcript values the higher order skills necessary for success in college and career, and it tells a story about a student: who they are, what they have learned, what they love, and who they want to be. … Its power is not only in what it communicates, but also in what it empowers: learning that is deeply personalized, student driven, based in authentic engagement, and designed to educate the “whole student.” (source)
By contrast, the traditional transcript “sorts and sifts students through narrow measures such as grades GPAs, reducing each complex and unique individual to a simple number.” Much like the ATAR does in Australia, and HSC ranking do to schools. (source) As a result, “high schools pick up on higher education’s signals and use them to make key decisions about what they teach, how they teach, and what they value as learning.”
As mentioned earlier, this really doesn’t make sense. If we know that employers are looking for workers with core human competencies such as creativity, critical thinking, agility, resilience, the ability to work collaboratively and solve complex, real-world problems, then why do we place such high-value on final test scores? Why does this become the key metric of success for students and schools?
More importantly, how do we institute a fundamental culture shift towards measuring what we most value in our young people?
The first step in this culture shift is to be courageous and clear about what we value. This includes spending time listening to the concerns in the community about academics and ranking metrics and facilitating an alternative understanding about learning. It involves placing each individual student at the centre of our thinking and recognising that one exam grade will not define them. Exam grades might open some doors and close others, but alternative pathways exist throughout our lives and rarely is that path direct and smooth. Shifting culture also involves issuing an invitation, which I do to all of you as parents, to think beyond the ATAR score or the ranking of schools and look for examples of deep and applied learning in action. And as part of this, advocating for your children to do the same.
Like all Year 12s across the state, our students are worried, but I would hazard to guess that the vast majority see these exams as one of many stepping-stones towards their future. At HVGS we get them ready for their examinations and do more than that; we stay committed to helping them become good human beings who love being part of a community who sees them for who they are and who they can be.