Opinion | Mar 22, 2022

Time to expand the HSC winners’ circle

Dallas McInerney

Chief Executive Officer of Catholic Schools NSW

First published in The Sydney Morning Herald 22 March 2022

The marathon is the flagship event of the modern Olympics and a culmination point on the last day of competition; runners cover a gruelling 42 kilometres before entering the stadium for a single lap to the finish line. What if the television coverage ignored the race start and the first 41 kilometres, didn’t bother profiling the athletes or their backstories, forgot to mention the
qualifying events before the Games and the commentators only started talking a few minutes before the end?

We would feel let down and without the benefit of context, unable to fully celebrate the talent and effort of all runners. Thankfully for sports fans, this does not happen, but this is the approach we have for the reporting of results for the Higher School Certificate.

Presently, HSC results reporting is excessively focused on elite achievement indices (Band 6s), the connecting pathway to university entry and resulting ATARs devised by the universities. It is good to celebrate such achievement. However, as the clear majority of school-leavers do not transition directly into university, is this the type of reporting regime that best captures the breadth of the achievements of our students? Why not report HSC results in a way that is more meaningful for the way in which school-leavers will transact with the credential, such as recording post-school employment, traineeships or vocational education?

The release and publication of HSC results data are tightly controlled by legislation, a result of authorities keen to avoid repeats of the infamous reporting of Mount Druitt High’s class of 1995 HSC results. The screaming headline of “The class we failed” resulted in swift amendments to the NSW Education Act that prohibited future reporting of low-performing schools. An unintended consequence has been a massive shift in focusing (almost exclusively) on results at the top end of achievement fuelled by a publicity arms race that over-reports on the top end, leaving behind a distorted view of the HSC’s purpose, its wider utility and, critically, a huge amount of unrecognised student achievement.

The annual HSC media frenzy is the product of two related information sets: ranking data released by the schools regulator, the NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA); and proxy lists compiled by news organisations. NESA releases four categories of HSC Merit Lists: first in course, top achiever, all-rounder and distinguished achiever. Combined, this identifies only a quarter of the annual HSC cohort. Media outlets, operating within legislative constraints,
devise their own measures, both the Herald and the Daily Telegraph use a success rate measure which is the result of re-engineering public data and assigning a number and rank to a school.

Both approaches have technical limitations or distortive influences on education as discussed in new research by Catholic Schools NSW, HSC Public Reporting Reform. There are serious questions that arise from a narrow and limited reporting regime that obscures the breadth of student effort and prevents recognition of the wider achievement of HSC students, including
student progression, improvements in whole school cohorts and attainment in subjects not prized by the front pages of newspapers or university deans.

Turning our schools into Band 6 factories was never envisaged by any credible educational authority, much less supported; there is already evidence of HSC subject choices privileging Band 6 calculations over more important factors such as academic suitability and longer-term career options.

Allowing more HSC students to see their hard work and results better reflected in official reporting and wider commentary can only be affirming for school-leavers and a source of encouragement for those who will follow. Such reform can be achieved while still celebrating our best and brightest, as we should, but there is room for more celebration in the HSC winners’ circle. It would be a great way to keep more students attached to their studies, encouraging investment in their futures and maintaining the currency of the HSC.

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