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What do final school results really tell us?

The following article by IRU Executive Director Conor King has been published as a comment piece by Education Review. Read the original article

With the recent release of VCE results, parents across Victoria have been eagerly hoping to find out what their children have achieved at school during the past two years. Isn’t it strange, then, that VCE results provide so little insight into the knowledge and abilities of each student?

It’s a question I asked myself last year when I saw my son’s VCE results. During his 10 years in primary school and early secondary, we were kept up-to-date about his progress against standard outcomes for his year of schooling. Yet when students get to years 11 and 12, their results are all rammed together into one ATAR and several adjusted subject scores.

The ATAR is not an assessment of learning. It simply tells us there were many students who did better than our son academically and many who did less well. It tells us nothing about what each student knows. The subject scores are little better. Each one is set to an average of 30, with a proportion of students’ results sitting either side of that score.

To make the transition from schooling to tertiary education and training effective for students, we first need to understand their level of achievement at school. It is the strange reality that students are provided with regular statements of learning levels throughout school but, in most states, none at the end of Year 12.

Throughout Australia, the senior secondary outcomes are, with the major exception of NSW, adjusted and normalised results which inform students and parents about the relative standing of each student compared to others in the state but do not make clear the actual level of capability. As a result, we do not know what change (if any) there is to Year 12 outcomes over time.

There was much bemoaning of the recent results of PISA, an international test of learning across 79 countries, that showed the level of knowledge and capability of Australian 15-year-olds is slipping backwards. If the PISA results are accurate, then it is likely too that students at the end of Year 12 are also in a worse position than previously – but we cannot tell from the way Victoria releases the results.

This is a problem for universities and other tertiary education institutions. If they are unsure what the students already know or can do, they are hampered in providing a smooth transition from school to tertiary learning. Universities have clear ideas about what a graduate should be capable of – the challenge is to ensure all graduates reach that point, especially if the entry capability is less strong than previously. Falling entry standards is a regular catchcry that people like me tend to dismiss as idealising of the past. But perhaps it has some validity.

Universities are far from blameless. We created the ranking systems that asks not “are you capable of my course” but “are you more or less capable than the next applicant”. The Australian Tertiary Academic Ranking (ATAR) is an effective means to select among those who are suitable when only some can be successful. The assumption is that the higher your academic capability at the point of application, the greater reason to admit you. This is a generally accepted rationing mechanism, although alternatives are possible.

We should not put school leavers in a box for life based on a Year 12 outcome. Instead, we need to understand each persons abilities and help them gain further knowledge and skills. The more objective the statement of Year 12 outcomes is, the better placed everyone is to build off it.

Year 12 certificates are almost forgotten during the end-of-year celebrations yet they should not be left to gather dust so quickly. They should instead be the launch pad into adult education and employment by encapsulating the information each person needs in a way that is useful across the breadth of tertiary education and school leaver employment. They should include clear information about the learnings of the individual, allowing tertiary education providers to directly assess whether a person has the minimum level of capability to undertake a course.

Rebalancing the focus from the ATAR to the certificate would also help reduce the pressure during the final years of school. It would support a vibrant education system that not only celebrates the most capable students but pushes everyone to new levels.

Conor King is executive director of Innovative Research Universities.