Could this be the beginning of the end of the HSC and ATAR as we know it?

In May 2018, the NSW Government announced a comprehensive review of the NSW school curriculum from Years K to 12, the first in 20 years. The review was commissioned in response to the Gonski review of Australia’s schooling and was designed to ensure that the NSW education system is properly preparing students for the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century. The optimistically titled interim report was recently released by the NSW Education Standard Authority (NESA) with the invitation for public consultation to close on 13 December. The final report is scheduled to be delivered in early 2020; however, given the scale and complexity of the changes proposed, these very exciting proposed changes are going to take time to implement.

Professor Geoff Masters AO (Chief Executive of the Australian Council for Educational Research) led the review and he acknowledges that the committee was encouraged by many to be bold, to put forward recommendations that would address the key criticisms of our current system, the overcrowded curriculum, the lock-step nature of the curriculum with prescribed content and mandated hours, particularly in Years 7-10 and the overemphasis on examination preparation and university entrance in Years 11 and 12.

Reforming the Content of the Curriculum

During the initial public consultation, there was significant support for a concentration on core basic skills and competencies such as literacy and numeracy in the Primary School years. The report speaks of a ‘common entitlement’ specifying what every student is entitled and expected to learn while at school.

The changes proposed would preference deeper conceptual understanding, identifying the key ‘big ideas’ that are essential in each subject. Technology now provides students ready access to information. Students actually need to focus on depth rather than breadth, developing the skills needed to manipulate information and apply disciplinary thinking. Deep understanding allows students to recognise opportunities to apply what they have learnt in different contexts. Students need sufficient time to work on projects that support the development of critical and creative thinking, skills in communicating, collaborating and using technologies to interpret information and data.

Reforming the Structure of the Curriculum

To give more flexibility to the curriculum, the report has recommended the development of clear sequences of ‘attainment’ in each area of learning as a frame of reference for monitoring and tracking learning progress. This would allow teachers the opportunity to establish where individual students are at in their learning in each subject area, very much as we are doing with our current use of Rubrics in Years 7-10. Students could then be provided with well-targeted and appropriately challenging teaching. Rather than grading each student’s performance against the same Year level syllabus expectations, information would be provided about the highest attainment level that a student achieved in each subject at any given time and the progress made toward the achievement of the next level.

Reforming the Senior School Curriculum

The most significant changes proposed are those that relate to curriculum delivery and assessment in Years 11 and 12. 

The report recommends the development of a more integrated approach to learning based on a smaller number of rigorous, high quality, advanced courses with an appropriate mix of theory and application.

Coursework would be modularised, structured so that students could work their way through modules based on increasingly sophisticated attainment levels. The school-based component of course assessments would involve tracking student achievement against these attainment levels. Teachers would assess each student’s current level of knowledge, understanding and skill, making an ‘on-balance’ judgement while also providing a detailed diagnostic analysis of the gaps in learning and appropriate next steps. This would be supplemented by an external assessment of attainment, not necessarily in the form of a final written exam.

It is envisaged that students would be able to commence advanced study once proficient in a discipline potentially commencing more advanced studies during Year 10. The highest attainment levels would need to include content usually contained in tertiary courses with these modules potentially contributing to higher education or vocational qualifications. The aim is to reduce the academic/vocational distinction and to provide new opportunities for partnerships with universities, vocational education providers and industries.

The review is also proposing the introduction of a single ‘major project’ as a standalone component of the senior certificate. Students would have choice of the learning area to be studied. Projects would be interdisciplinary in nature focused on a meaningful real-world problem or challenge. It is proposed that students should have the opportunity to work as part of a project team and involve the application of advanced subject knowledge and understanding. While a major project is already a component of other Australian senior secondary qualifications and the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma program, it is proposed that the major project would make up two of the 10 required units for the HSC.

The ‘negative’ impact of the ATAR was also considered. Many submissions to the review referenced concerns about the status of the ATAR as the single measure of educational attainment following 13 years of schooling. The opportunity to bypass the ATAR in determining university entrance for specific courses seems a very encouraging step. While the press place great emphasis on the ATAR, many in the community do not appreciate that currently students are admitted to courses based on a ‘Selection Rank’ which is calculated separately for each course. 

Various ‘adjustment factors’ (bonus points) are currently used at the discretion of individual universities. 

What is being proposed is a more transparent process with students receiving multiple Selection Ranks with transparency around the number of places available in each course that they are interested in studying.

Technically, this process is entirely possible. If it were to be introduced it would obviate the need to report the ATAR but would give Year 12 students much more clarity about their options when applying for university admission.

While some of the changes proposed could be implemented relatively quickly, some will require significant time for detailed planning, trialing, testing and implementation. We look forward to hearing the outcome of the public consultation process.

ABOUT THE AUTHORjanprofile150

Jan Hart is the Head of High School at Moriah College in Queens Park, NSW.

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