New Ways to Report HSC Performance

23 Mar 2022

I well remember the day my HSC results were released. My friends and I rang each other continuously throughout the day – we had to wait until the post was delivered and as a result, we all got results at different times. I still remember the stress as I waited well into the afternoon.

At the time and certainly a few years later as I completed another milestone – an education degree - the experience of waiting for the letter and seeing my schooling being reduced to a mark on one page, felt wrong. I suspect countless of students, generation after generation, have had the same thoughts. 

Each year, the same strange HSC dance takes place – two days before the results, the school waits to hear if any of our students have been placed First in Course (like Matthew Macdougall in 2021). On the day itself, at 5:45am (15 minutes before the students) the Head of School can login to NESA’s website and find all the HSC results. Then, at 6am bleary-eyed students hear their phones beep and a text message arrives with their personal results. Still it is not over. Later in the day, the universities release the students’ ATARs, again by text message. Finally, media organisations – both local and statewide – then swoop to find the top academic achievers in NSW schools. 

As a School Principal – the way the HSC has been reported has never sat well with me. In all this time between my personal experience and today – the only real change is the method of delivery – not what is delivered.

When several of the NGS staff saw this article in the Sydney Morning Herald  this week, it sparked a similar reaction – simply – we all agreed with the conclusion “the education landscape has changed. It’s time for HSC reporting to change too.” Whether it is the individual results a student receives or how HSC success is reported, surely we have entered a new era where a broader and more transparent report on how a school is performing and what a student has achieved in their time at school, is needed. 

What has changed about the education landscape? The last five years have delivered more change in education than the last thirty years and it has opened minds to new possibilities. 

The opportunities available to students and school offerings have changed. The broad school curriculum has shifted with new courses, high technology integration, the expectation of the personalisation of learning, wider opportunities for work placements and Vocational courses are just a few areas of change. Currently curriculum courses from K to Year 12 are undergoing review. Schools are talking about changing timetables, delivering online courses and hybrid lesson delivery. COVID has massively accelerated this change. 

The ways in which universities select students has clearly changed. In the last five years, the University sector has broken away from solely using ATAR entry by offering much more early entry and selection via wider criteria. Indeed, many of the class of 2021 slept through their 6am text message knowing that they already had their place at university guaranteed. In turn, this is changing senior secondary options and subject choices by students.

The SMH story shows that discussions among school sectors, NESA and the media about how best to report on student and school performance are changing. For many years, NESA has only released details of the very best performers to the media, so the SMH table only tells us the proportion of a school cohort who have received marks above 90% (known as a Band 6 mark). However, this is a very limited and arguably flawed method of measuring performance. For example, one particular high school should be top every year, given that it is a selective school with a strong record – and most schools will never be in the top 100, given the quality of their cohorts.

However, this does not mean that the first school does a better job of teaching than any other High School. Hopefully, NESA’s review will look at alternative methods of measuring performance, like Victoria’s use of a Median VCE Mark for every school, or some form of Value-Added measure that plots how much growth each student has achieved between benchmark years.

In addition, the best measure would not reward schools that ‘game’ the system by pushing students into ‘easier’ courses in which they are more likely to get marks over 90%. At Newcastle Grammar School we do the opposite – our mantra is that students should aim to do the highest level of subject possible because it is in their best interests to do so.

HSC success comes in many forms – as does success at school. It’s time we have this conversation and broaden definitions of success as well as defining more clearly post school pathways and how schools help to prepare students for a complex world.