Quantity ≠ quality

Glenn Fahey

23 October 2020 | Ideas@theCentre

The class of 2020 began HSC exams this week — but not all will benefit as gainfully from the rite of passage as in the past.

Among the chief objectives of education policy in recent decades has been to lift student attainment in schools. There are now around three-quarters of eligible students in NSW completing Year 12 — up from around two-thirds in 2009.

However, higher attainment isn’t the optimal indicator of educational outcomes. What really matters is that students enjoy higher achievement and leave school with the skills needed for further study and work.

In short, greater quantity of time spent in school doesn’t always mean greater quality of time learning.

Increasing the retention of students to Year 12 may well increase the stock of potential university applicants, but it can also have unanticipated effects on schooling — including difficulty maintaining high education standards.

Sadly, many students haven’t benefitted from the extra time spent in school; because staying on isn’t always the best educational decision — based on their ability and needs.

As with broadened intakes at universities, a larger Year 12 cohort has contributed to a softening of academic standards and the rigours of assessment.

This can be seen in the surging numbers of HSC exam-sitters receiving additional concessions this year. One in six students now receive assistance to help them with test-taking.

In many cases, this provides critical assistance to students who need extra help from scribes, interpreters, and other aides.

But for others, concessions are required to paper over low levels of foundational skills. Students unable to properly structure sentences, read proficiently, and write legibly simply don’t have the literacy skills essential to perform under exam conditions. The better use of these formative years would be remedying their literacy deficits, rather than pursuing the HSC.

It’s also undeniable that a growing number of concessions are extended to students who aren’t genuinely in need — used to gain an upper hand in the exam room. The same is true for the well-intentioned, but overly generous, bonus points scheme that bolsters students’ ATAR scores in gaining entry to university.

There’s a delicate balance to be maintained between ensuring we have an inclusive education system without compromising the quality and rigour of it.

As ever, lifting the bar on academic standards and expectations will do the world of good for students of all abilities and needs — not just pumping out more year 12 completions. We mustn’t continue to conflate quantity of schooling with quality.

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