Nathan Khoury has mixed feelings about the plan to get year 12 back into class.
Nathan Khoury’s world has shrunk into a bedroom. The year 12 student from Parramatta sleeps there, attends school via Zoom there, studies there and often eats there, too. “These four walls are my life,” he says.
Khoury, 17, is an extrovert, and would normally crowd his calendar with extra-curricular and social engagements. “When you’re such a people person, to be confined to your little room is definitely tough.”
At least his bedroom gives him constancy, because there’s little of it outside. Like his mates, Khoury has struggled to keep up with rapidly-changing plans for year 12. He’d love some certainty around the HSC, but failing that - and he knows it’s unlikely in a pandemic - he’d like less chopping and changing from government.
“It’s really confusing,” he says. “Are we going to school, or are we not going to school? They say, ‘here’s what will happen’, then ‘all of this will change’.” There was another change on Friday, when the government said the return-to-school plan had been drastically wound back and Khoury must now stay at home.
In NSW, the Higher School Certificate is a big deal. It’s the culmination of 13 years of schooling, which many students - rightly or wrongly - regard as the ticket to their future. Some educators love it, others want it scrapped. NSW’s politicians are particularly attached to it. They call it the “gold standard” in school-leaving qualifications, and spend $100 million a year – more than any other state – on marking and logistics. The HSC particularly appeals to premier Gladys Berejiklian, who sees herself in the hardworking migrant kids for whom the exams are a stepping stone to bigger things.
Before COVID-19, no-one thought anything could stop the HSC. When the epidemic began last year and the state locked down in March, concerns about social distancing led to delays – the written exams were postponed by five days – and the cancellation of some group examinations, but abandoning exams, which have run like clockwork since 1967, was never on the cards.
This year, it’s different. The tactics that tamed the Alpha variant of COVID-19 are not working for Delta. Case numbers are stubbornly high and inching upwards. It’s making teenagers sick. When COVID-19 hit last year the HSC examining body, the NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA), had almost six months before the written exams; this year, the outbreak came just as year 12 was about to hit the final stretch. Student stress went through the roof. The sector began asking itself; what happens if NSW is still battling COVID-19 when HSC exams begin in October? After a few weeks, Sydney Catholic Schools boss Tony Farley publicly articulated what a lot of people were already thinking; maybe, he suggested, it’s time to cancel?
Could they be cancelled?
It’s entirely possible to abandon exams and still give students their HSC, although there could be a legal argument over a clause in the education act that says the qualification must involve a state-wide public exam. The act doesn’t stipulate when the exam must be held; only that it must be run sometime, in some form. It also has a provision for students who can’t do it, whether that’s individuals, or a whole group whose plans are derailed by bushfires or, perhaps, a pandemic. Cancellation is an option subtly acknowledged in the words carefully chosen by NSW Education Minister, Sarah Mitchell, whenever she reassures students that they “will be able to receive their HSC”.
If exams were cancelled, HSC results could be based on a combination of two things: work students have already done, and how their teachers estimate they’d have gone without the COVID-19 impact. Research over many years has shown the tests held prior to year 12 are strong indicators of HSC success. One University of Newcastle researcher has developed a system that predicts students’ HSC marks with more than 90 per cent accuracy, using information such as year 9 NAPLAN, HSC subject choice and year 11 attendance.
Teachers would then use that data to predict students’ results. Leading educational measurement Professor Jim Tognolini says this is not as random as it sounds. One study investigating the accuracy of teacher-predicted scores in Britain found just under 90 per cent of grades were accurately predicted to within one mark. Another UK study found teacher assessments were as reliable and stable as standardised exam scores.
Many teachers don’t want to be in this position, though. Last year, art teachers were asked to mark their own students’ major works. “It caused enormous upheaval,” says Gemma Baldwin, co-president of the Visual Arts and Design Educators Association. “Teachers were put in the insidious position of being judge, jury and executioner. You want the best for your kids, and you’re being judged on their success. Some teachers were as optimistic as possible, and those results stood: some teachers were trying to be as objective as possible and those results also stood.”
If this happens, a key question would be how NESA would work out whether the marks given by schools were too kind, or not kind enough. That’s one of the reasons why a public examination is so important. If a history class is scoring an average of 90 per cent in school assessments, yet barely scrapes 60 in the public exam, authorities know the teachers are being too generous and lower the students’ assessment marks accordingly. It’s called moderation.
Farley’s suggestion involved NESA using old information. It could see how a particular school’s assessment marks have compared to its exam marks over, say, five years, and use that to decide whether the school made objective estimates. Critics, however, say that’s fraught with danger. What if this year’s cohort school was much better or worse than their predecessors?
Another downside to cancelling the HSC is that it robs students of a chance to improve. Some kids leave their run late, and ramp up their effort for the final exams. Some also do better in exams than assessments.
The UK found itself in a big mess when it cancelled its final exams last year. It decided to base grades on teacher predictions, moderated by an algorithm that calculated a school’s performance in previous years. The idea was to stop students being given higher grades than they deserved. But the algorithm downgraded the results of disadvantaged students at public schools, and inflated the results of students at private ones.
There was a huge outcry, and eventually the government allowed students to use teachers’ raw marks. Those with top grades rose by 10 per cent. “Universities were then in a position to discriminate between students on the basis of other factors, all of which are less fair than an exam grade,” says Greg Ashman, a British-born, Victoria-based teacher and author. “Exams may need to be abandoned in an emergency, but there is no magic system to replace them that does not contain significant disadvantages.”
As COVID-19 cases intensified, NSW educators began looking to Victoria, which suffered a three-month lockdown last year that also began in July. Despite extreme uncertainty, Victoria did not cancel its year 12 exams. It postponed them until early November, and all students were given an opportunity to apply for special consideration, based on their particular COVID-19 challenges. NSW and Victoria have long offered special consideration for students who faced extra challenges in their final year, such as an illness or tragedy; it’s a well-established, trusted process.
The special consideration system used teacher predictions, which were moderated without controversy because the exams went ahead. Students were awarded the higher of their two scores, and the tertiary entrance rank was calculated on the result. “The school had to agree that [the students] were disadvantaged, and it was time consuming,” said Colin Axup, the head of the Victorian Association of State Secondary Principals. “But it was the right thing to do, and importantly it sent a message to a cohort of students that the system was acknowledging it wasn’t a great year.”
Many in NSW thought Victoria’s was a sensible model, and the one NSW authorities would adopt; push ahead with exams and delay them if necessary – the HSC has already been delayed a week – while using special provisions to both acknowledge student’s individual challenges and act as a plan B if stubborn COVID-19 case numbers continued into October and exams had to be cancelled.
Premier Gladys Berejiklian says students in hotspot areas will not return to school and all HSC trials and assessments will be done at home under the government’s revised HSC return-to-school plan.Credit: James Brickwood
Back to school?
But state’s crisis cabinet – made up of five ministers, but Mitchell is not among them – came up with a solution nobody expected. As case numbers climbed, more children contracted the virus and lockdown restrictions were tightened to reduce the movement of adults, Premier Gladys Berejiklian announced last week that by mid-August, year 12 students would be able to return to school.
While many people wanted clarity for year 12, nobody had been lobbying for them all to come back to campus. Principals were confused: they’d just been told by NSW Department of Education officials not to allow students onto school grounds to work on major projects, or in some cases even pick the projects up, yet in two weeks they were to allow a hundred on site with dozens of teachers – even though COVID-19 case numbers were climbing? Workers were being pressured to work from home, and workers were banned from leaving hotspot areas, but principals would have to recall three quarters of their teaching staff to teach year 12?
None of those who would normally be consulted were asked about that plan. If they had been, they would have explained that some schools – selective and private ones in particular – had students from across the city; Sydney Boys High draws students from south-west Sydney hotspots into the eastern suburbs, while Gosford High brings together students from Newcastle with those from northern Sydney. They would have said many of their students’ families are terrified of the virus, and would refuse to send their children anyway. They would have explained that key teachers lived in hotspot zones, but could not simply be replaced by a casual because HSC knowledge is such a speciality.
Teachers worried it would be a super-spreader event, hurting not only their colleagues, but also the wider community. Some medical experts agreed, including the Australian Medical Association’s president Omar Khorshid, who said the plan seemed “nonsensical”.
Despite more than a week since its initial announcement, the government has also failed to reveal any more detail about one of the key planks of its back-to-school plan: rapid antigen tests. Well-placed sources, speaking on the condition of anonymity, say that’s because that strategy is unworkable; the Therapeutic Goods Administration does not allow rapid antigen tests to be self-administered, so gathering enough nurses to test 51,000-odd HSC students a few times a week would be logistically and financially overwhelming. There’s still gossip about different types of tests, but no detail from health authorities.
The other important element is vaccination. Students in hotspots were to be inoculated with Pfizer, redirected from adults in the regions. Thousands of students will be bussed to a sports arena at Homebush next week, a feat one principal described as “very impressive … particularly if they can pull it off”. Those in the regions are less impressed, and some parents are worried about their kids riding on buses with 20 other kids to the centre.
A government plan to give students certainty backfired. It created even more confusion. Debates raged on HSC discussion forums between students keen to return, and those worried about it. The NSW Teachers Federation and the Independent Education Union together demanded the plan be abandoned; the Catholic sector also wrote to Mitchell about its concerns. Some private sector principals were happy with it; many public ones were unhappy; almost all were confused. Within a week, the government wound the plan back to a regime even stricter – but also clearer – than the one before the initial announcement.
Students who lived or attended schools in hotspot local government areas were not to go to school at all; all trials and assessments were to be done at home; and students in other areas could attend campus in small groups and under strict rules.
Observers are still confused about how and why the crisis cabinet came up with the idea in the first place. “It was a political decision,” says Angelo Gavrielatos, the president of the NSW Teachers Federation. “It’s a dog’s breakfast,” says another senior education official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. Some speculate the government was looking for a good news headline among all the negativity; there is deep public sympathy for the plight of year 12. Others think Berejiklian - who was a hardworking student herself - genuinely believes the HSC is essential.
Year 12 students of 2020 at Penola Catholic College after completing their English HSC exam which was collected by gloved teaches. Credit: Nick Moir
“There’s a lot of spin and positioning,” said One Nation MP Mark Latham, who is also the chair of parliament’s education committee. “[Berejiklian] is talking about vaccination rates by the end of August; by her criteria, [the government should] wait, and hope year 12 get the best instruction they can online. The HSC is not until October. You can postpone it until November. If you want to do it as safely as possible, then use the flexibility you’ve got instead of jumping in so quickly.”The plan may have also cost the government support in the regions, where adults were furious about having their long-awaited vaccination appointments cancelled. “It was always a whacky plan to take Pfizer away from the Hunter Valley to give it to 17-year-olds in Sydney,” says Latham.
Officials have always gone to great pains to tell year 12 that the HSC is just an exam; it’s not the be-all and end-all. But sending year 12 back to school during what the chief health officer, Kerry Chant, called a national emergency undermines that message. “I’m not sure if the HSC is a key priority, a key concern right now,” says Khoury “There’s a lot of other things going on.”