How schools respond to COVID-19 disruption of Year 12 HSC says a lot about entrenched inequality in Australia’s education system

The COVID-19 lock down in Greater Sydney has thrown chaos in the HSC trials, but how schools choose to handle this disruption says a lot about inequality of Australia’s education system, which is deeply rooted in the mindset and practices of teachers and principals.

On Tuesday 1oth August, the principal of Gosford High School, a selective high school on the Central Coast, issued a notification of the school’s Executive action. Below is an extract from the letter.

“…the most effective course of action, given the COVID restrictions and cancellation of Trial Examinations at school, is to cancel the online assessment tasks planned for Weeks 6 and 7 and finalise the school based HSC ranks and marks on the tasks already completed. This means all current assessment ranks will be maintained. This decision is in line with NESA advice and further informed by a review of relevant data and the consideration of a number of concerns raised by the school community.

The Central Coast Secondary Principals Association, NSW Secondary Principals Council Executive and Selective Schools Principals Association identified concerns about the ability of an online task to provide an equitable, authentic, and valid assessment measure as a Trial Examination replacement.

As well, students and teachers of Gosford High School raised legitimate concerns about the inability of an online task to accurately replicate the HSC examination without the risk of malpractice and misadventures. As a result of all the concerns identified above, the Senior Executive analysed the cumulative assessment ranks for previous Year 12 cohorts at each assessment point in Year 12. The results demonstrated that the difference in cumulative student assessment ranks after Task 3 and after Task 4 (Trial Examinations) did not warrant a replacement online task in 2021. This data, combined with the large risk of adding further stress to Year 12 in what has already been a challenging and unpredictable HSC year, secured the decision of the Executive Team to cancel the online assessment block planned for Weeks 6 and 7 in 2021.”

There are numerous concerns with what has been proposed and the justification for them.

1.           The use of current ranking based on completed tasks is an unfair and discriminates against students who may have not performed well in the first few assessment tasks and are improving and looking to the HSC Trials (or a replacement task) to improve their ranking.

2.           The use of “cumulative assessment ranks for previous Year 12 cohorts at each assessment point in Year 12 to derive that the difference in cumulative student assessment ranks after Task 3 and after Task 4 (Trial Examinations) did not warrant a replacement online task in 2021” is not a valid argument and justification for the following reasons:

•            This method is deeply flawed statistically and has no justification practically. First, students’ prior results do not predict or determine current results. Imagine the Olympics is cancelled, and the IOC just give out gold medals based on prior year’s results of athletes that competed – would that be acceptable?

•            Averaging an entire cohort does not take account of individual performances and for a diverse student that attend GHS, simply does not make sense and moreover does not take into account students’ progression.

•            It seems that there is a confusion between an “online” task and an “assessment” task. Just because an assessment task may not be effective online does not mean that the assessment itself is not valid. Most Year 12 students would say that the last assessment task i.e. the HSC trials is the most important one because they know it’s the last chance for them to improve their overall rank.

•            Each assessment task sets out to assess a different learning area of which students may perform differently. This is why there are four assessment tasks altogether – they assess different areas. Otherwise, why would schools use HSC trials as an assessment task which is common practice for the last 50 years?

3.           Although the notification refers to “decision was made in consideration of a number of concerns raised by the school community“, as a parent of Year 12 student, I was not aware that there was a forum where parents and students could raise their concerns and viewpoints. I wonder whether there was such a forum or the principal’s decision is based on a handful of comments. Moreover, if school community is used as a justification, then all parents’ viewpoints should be taken into consideration not just a few comments. 

4.           The claim that there is “large risk of adding further stress to Year 12 in what has already been a challenging and unpredictable HSC year” is questionable in terms of its basis. If this is referring to the online delivery of the assessment task, then GHS should be looking at another option of assessment task to be submitted online rather than online assessment. Setting an assessment task and asking student to submit online is a common practice bearing the same level of risk of malpractice, cheating, lack of authenticity and invalid measure of student performance.

5.           The approach proposed by GHS does not in any way consider students’ interests, wellbeing and least of all their education because:

•            It discriminates against students who may have not performed well in the first few assessment tasks and are improving and looking to the HSC Trials to improve their ranking.

•            It discounts all the hard work that many students have put in for the last mile – these students have the right to sit the trials.

•            It ignores students’ improvement which is detrimental and counter the principle of learning.

•            It does not consider students’ interests, those that have struggled but resilient, in a fair and equitable way.

•            It denies those students who have worked hard to prepare for the HSC trials in a very challenging situation the opportunity to demonstrate that they can learn and improve.

•            It is an easy and convenient way for GHS to not have to set and mark another assessment-based task. One would expect that qualified teachers can set assessment task for year 12 subject in a couple of hours.

Instead, I propose the following:

a)           Replace the HSC Trials Exams with an assessment task to be completed in students own time and submitted online

•            All students should complete an assessment task in their own time and submit online as they would have done for previous assessment tasks. 

•            The content of the assessment task could be extracted from the HSC Trials exam or teachers create a new assessment task. In my experience as a university academic and teacher education academic, a qualified and competent teacher should be able to create assessment task for a number of subject learning areas in 2 hours.

•            This replacement task should be no different to other assessment task except that student may have less time to complete e.g 24 hours. The timetable for due date in submitting this assessment task is the same as the Trials timetable.

b)           Opt-in HSC Trials exam

•            Any student who wants to sit the HSC trials should be given the opportunity to do so at school under exam conditions as any exams and in COVID-19 safe environment. Their HSC trial exam marks should be included in the final marks. If they opt to sit the HSC trials exams, then they have to do so for all of their subjects.

•            Those who don’t want to sit HSC trials can have their final marks based on task already completed as proposed.

•            The overall ranking is calculated based on all students’ final marks as per usual.

•            The HSC trials can be held at school in staggered way to ensure COVID safety just like those that are coming in to undertake their performance work, or those that have to attend because parents are essential worker. GHS as with all schools are already providing this arrangement. If Bunnings can be open, and construction sites in COVID-19 hot spots can have hundreds of people on site, surely GHS can manage to supervise a handful of students doing written exams in 10 days.

c)           Model students’ cumulative assessment ranks based on this years’ completed assessment tasks and possible Task 4 results using range of scenarios of Task 4 test scores. the scenarios should include students’ lowest to highest test scores achieved in Task 3 across all their subjects. This modelling should be conducted for each student and for each subject.

For example, if a student is doing 5 subjects (Maths Advance, Biology, Economics, Chemistry, English Advance) and achieved for Assessment Task 3 the following: 90% for Maths Advance, 80% for Biology, 70% for Economics, 75% for Chemistry, 80% for English. Then there are 5 scenarios for Task 4 test scores should be 70%, 75%, 80%, 80%, 90%. Of course, this method is not statistically valid in predicting Test 4 scores, but it is a lot more valid and robust compared to the GHS’s method of using past results of entire cohort of students.

Interestingly, I had shared these views on the GHS’s Facebook page, only to find my comments removed or hidden within 24 hours, and what remains are comments in support of the principal’s decision. This ‘silencing’ act says a lot about how GHS sees their relationship with parents, what they consider as a school community, and how they choose to respond to a parent’s concern. One would imagine a school in Australia would be more democratic and fairer, especially when issues about students’ learning, wellbeing, and outcomes measurement in arguably the most important year of schooling are being called into question.

As I have written here and here, entrenched inequality is deeply rooted in Australia’s education system because it is manifested continuously by the mindset and actions of the administrators, principals and teachers within the system. Sadly, these are the same people that are supposed to guide and nurture students and support them during uncertain times like COVID-19.


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