5 reasons why HSC and ATAR scores make the angels cry

  1. The Australian Tertiary Enrance Rank (ATAR – formerly UAI in NSW) is, as its name suggests, a RANK.  A rank against other students.  This means that everything students have worked for over the HSC year is reduced to little more than a rung on the ladder, where it’s only possible for a few to stand at the top.
  2. Students who are competing for grades don’t tend to like helping each other learn.  The HSC encourages selfishness in learners.
  3. HSC marks are divided into BANDS.  Band 6 (marks of 90-100) is the highest.  Everyone wants a Band 6.  Or “at least a Band 5!”  In his review of the HSC in 1996 Professor Barry McGaw recommended the removal of Band labels, explaining that schools, students and parents were largely ignoring rich assessment feedback relating to actual learning outcomes.  Instead they were simply increasing pressure on kids to attain high status Bands.  But the NSW BOS ignored McGaw’s recommendation (and the NSW government later introduced mandatory A-E report grading for all primary and secondary students to boot…that’s when the angels really started howling)
  4. School is supposed to be a place where you receive an education that promotes social, emotional, physical and cognitive growth.  Credentialing methods that only report on academic achievement undermine the work that schools and communities to do to help students grow into healthy, happy and resilient human beings.
  5. There is no way to acknowledge students who are acheiving their personal best.  It’s all about who wins…and who loses.

Don’t even get me started on how the whole process is geared toward selecting which students will enter which University course – despite the fact that only 30% of students will actually go to University.  Or on the research findings of studies of the effect of stress, anxiety and depression on student motivation and goal orientation.  Or on how an exam driven curricula encourages teaching to the test over promotion of engagement and deep knowledge.

I don’t mean to take the buzz away from any Year 12 teacher or student out there today who is enjoying shiny results.  If you’re wondering, I’m very pleased with mine.  But the conversations I’ve had to listen to today (and every other year when these results bear down on schools) have made me sick to the stomach.  HSC and ATAR scoring is my very least favourite part of being a teacher…I hope the utopia I’ve heard about up here in Queensland is everything it’s cracked up to be.

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  1. #1 by kellimcgraw on December 17, 2009 - 11:29 pm

    Interestingly, “Atar” is also the Zoroastrian (Persian) concept for “burning and unburning fire”, and is ‘iconographically conflated with fire itself, which in middle Persian is ataksh
    (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atar)

  2. #2 by Troy on December 18, 2009 - 5:53 am

    Clapping and trying to whisper to colleagues who were upset with ‘their’ results that it is, after all, a number…also I am currently teaching at a school that has never had an Indigneous student complete the HSC. Sure, the students with Indigenous heritage may have moved into highly successful areas, but I’d give all our Band 6s up for the 20 or so Indigneous students in 7-10 to get through to the HSC…

  3. #3 by kellimcgraw on December 27, 2009 - 6:39 pm

    It’s certainly somethng that should force us to reflect on our priorities, and perhaps rethink our approch to the new teaching year.

  4. #4 by kmcg2375 on January 5, 2010 - 6:11 pm

    One colleague commented after reading this post that I had been a bit cynical, and that schools do and value far more than the HSC.

    I always bristle at being called cynical, but I shouldn’t, because I am. And the HSC is one of my pet issues to rage about. I think the Stage 6 curriculum sidelines any development outside of academic, and that although individual school do much to educate the ‘whole child’, the will of the HSC permeates every institution. We don’t look after Senior students well enough in terms of their physical or mental health. We think nothing of making three assessments due on the same week and basically saying ‘too bad’.

    So, no apologies for the cynicism, but now for some constructive thinking about how to improve the situation, rather than just bitch and moan about it 😉

  5. #5 by Scribbler on January 5, 2010 - 6:46 pm

    Qld is heading in your direction. Mandatory A-E. Teach to the test NAPLAN and other stuff is in full swing here in the ‘smart state’. Boo hoo to us too.

  6. #6 by Kym on February 26, 2010 - 6:57 pm

    I agree about point number 2. The HSC has been making me constantly compare myself to others. I’ve never felt so down throughout my school years as I do now.

    • #7 by kmcg2375 on February 27, 2010 - 2:19 pm

      That is sad to hear Kym 😦
      It is hard when the focus of learning is just to beat other people. Don’t worry – once the HSC is finished you can focus on shaking those bad habits! Your learning should be about you – your passions and your interests. There is so much more in the world to look forward to than you can even imagine, and the HSC will not be the thing to make or break that.

      Keep your spirits high, and believe in yourself 🙂
      (and thanks for your comment. this motivates me to focus even more on student experience in my future research.)

  7. #8 by Eleanor Dixon on October 17, 2010 - 3:35 pm

    omgosh miss!! this is exactly how I feel throughout year 12 !! its so depressing!

    • #9 by kmcg2375 on October 17, 2010 - 4:48 pm

      Oh, that is sad to hear! But, at least it is almost over now…you are on the home stretch and can get back to enjoying your learning and reading again soon 😀
      Thanks for commenting on my blog chickie ❤

  8. #10 by David Chapman on December 15, 2010 - 9:25 pm

    Well expressed. The results of the HSC today are causing the predictable highs and lows around students and teachers today. It saddens me to think that we spend so much time teaching to the HSC exam – and Stage 6 planning and reflecting is almost completely focussed on preparing for those exams.

    In an age of free (or almost/should be free) information and education – why do we still have to rank? It makes no sense. I love to teach – and I love engaging students in stuff that inspires them – and then we remember the exams.

    (for the record this is not bitterness – my students did very well today- but I still don’t like the exams and ranking).

  9. #11 by Kate on February 1, 2011 - 12:58 pm

    It’s so true, the pressure of comparing yourself to everyone else has destroyed me. I get so depressed about it, leading then to do half-assed efforts in my other assignments, which in turn, leave me more depressed than before. It’s ridiculous. Really, is there no other way they could do it?

  10. #12 by Harold on December 15, 2011 - 1:48 pm

    Well the Results are in and Im sooooooooooo deppressed about my marks. Even though i was a a grade student at school i hated the HSC. Everyday i feell like shit, bieng deppressed about the mark and being counted as a failure. Deppression sucks sooo bad even ruined my bday.

  11. #13 by Laura on December 16, 2011 - 12:53 am

    I have to, and sadly, agree with you. As a teacher who has taken my first year 12s through, I cannot believe that it has all come down to a number that determines their worth. because of the hype and extreme competitiveness between schools and teachers I feel that I will fail them if they don’t get a good score. What happened to all the knowledge gained in class? What happened to enlightenment and wisdom? Because the board has made the end result a number, and the universities evaluate a students worth on a rank. I’ve seen a beautiful girl cry today her world crumbled because of an ATAR of 50 who tried so hard. It is not a reward on effort.

  12. #14 by Rizzy Phillips on January 27, 2012 - 1:06 pm

    I’m a year 11 student parent. Why English is a compulsory subject for ATAR and not Maths? We need basic English and Maths to be able to survive in the community at the basic level. So I don’t understand why Maths is not one of the compulsory subject as english.

    Since girls are more advance in language, it may be why more girls do better than the boys in HSC.

  13. #15 by kmcg2375 on January 29, 2012 - 1:18 am

    Hi Rizzy…it’s a good question, isn’t it?

    My feeling is that most students have mastered the ‘basic’ English and Maths needed to ‘survive in the community’ before they get to Year 11…but surely we want more for our kids than that?

    English is compulsory in NSW for Year 11 & 12 due to a recognition that students in fact require a very sophisticated level of skill in communication and understanding of language to experience success in society today.

    The question is: would students also benefit from being made to study sophisticated levels of Maths? I’m not sure what the answer to this is.

    I just wish that a unit of English wasn’t compulsory in the calculation of the UAI 😦 The pressure that this places on teachers to ‘teach to the test’ is crazy bananas!

  14. #16 by Ebony on February 24, 2015 - 9:18 pm

    This article is so dam on point. The amount of stress the HSC pins on highschoolers is a joke, one mark shouldn’t determine our success and our happiness, and one mark should’nt take precedent over our sleep and mental and physical health. I find it incredibly funny that i’m currently in year 12 and have really learnt nothing valuable all year, it’s all about how well you can remember dates and how well you can memorize essays,quotes and a bunch of other useless things like maths formulas and equations. What happens if you write a wonderful essay but then due to stress forget the entire thing in the exam and get a really bad mark as a result??? How unfair and shitty is that???? I’ve missed so much sleep in the past year, do they really expect me to complete a 6 hour day at school and then come home and do 3 hours of homework from the minute i get home to the minute i go to sleep? Do they not take into consideration the fact that i have a job (as most year 12’ers do) and have to somehow sustain a healthy social and family life, as well as find time to go out in the sun and exercise? I’m so over it, the hsc does not test how intelligent we are, it tests how well we can REMEMBER and MEMORIZE page after page of summary notes.Like the saying goes, you’re grades don’t truly reflect you’re intelligence, they’re nothing but a reflection of the messed up education system. 🙂
    PS. Christian schools shouldn’t make religion compulsory, what a joke.

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  1. HSC English: Standard or Advanced? « Kelli McGraw
  2. The HSC again. and again. « Kelli McGraw
  3. 2010 in review « Kelli McGraw

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