Monday, 1 August 2016

The HSC reforms: the substance behind the reporting (2016 Term 3 Week 2)

Last week the NSW Minister for Education announced significant changes to the Higher School Certificate (HSC). The HSC is the credential gained by NSW students after they complete Year 12 and it provides, in large part, the data that is used by the Universities Admission Centre (UAC) to generate students' Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank (ATAR). As such, the reforms are significant. However, as is often the case, the way that these reforms have been reported has obscured some of the most important aspects of the reforms. Thankfully, it is possible to access all the information directly through the BOSTES website.

The main focus of reporting has been on the implementation of a minimum standard of literacy and numeracy for the awarding of the HSC. At this point, students are awarded an HSC if they complete the requisite number of units, regardless of the standard that they achieve. The new policy will require students to demonstrate a minimum standard of literacy and numeracy, in addition to completing their units. This minimum standard can be demonstrated through Year 9 NAPLAN assessment, or through separate online testing in Years 10, 11 or 12. 

While this new policy is noteworthy, it is not likely to be too onerous to most students; to provide some perspective, historical data would suggest that two thirds of our students would have met this minimum standard in Year 9. The first year to be affected by the new policy will be the current Year 8 students. A Year 9 NAPLAN result below a band 8 will act as an early warning system to identify students at risk of not meeting the standard. These students will then have time with their teachers, parents and schools to work to improve their performance, before taking the online literacy and numeracy test. Students who do not demonstrate the standard during schooling will have five years after leaving school to meet the literacy and numeracy standard and receive a HSC.

Image result for NAPLAN

Given that the vast majority of Inaburra students will meet this standard, it seems to me that some of the other reforms are more likely to have an impact on us. For example, the BOSTES decision to cap the number of formal, in-school assessment tasks is to be applauded. As parents of Year 11 and 12 students know, the formal, in-school assessments that constitute 50% of a student's HSC can place significant pressure on students. The reduction of formal assessments seems wise and it should have a positive impact on student wellbeing.

The BOSTES decision to focus less on rote-learning and memorisation for examinations, and more on the application of knowledge and skills, should assist students to engage with deep learning and understanding. Their intention is to provide guidelines to ensure in-school assessment is similarly challenging. This focus is entirely appropriate, as a way of helping the senior years of study to cultivate that capacity to transfer and to apply knowledge which will be of most assistance to our young people in the years ahead.

However, the most significant aspects of the reforms has to do with the review of the HSC syllabuses. BOSTES plan to establish and maintain an ongoing process of syllabus review that should help ensure that the material covered in the courses is current; in some fields, such as information technology and science, the syllabus is woefully dated.

The review process is already underway. English, Maths, Science and History courses are all under review at the moment; draft documents have been released and consultations are taking place at workshops and online through the month of August. The intention is that the syllabus documents will be finalised this year, released in 2017 and implemented for Year 11 2018. Inaburra teachers in the relevant fields are engaging with this review process, recognising the importance of ensuring that the syllabus is formed with the input of practitioners. 

It is possible to make some early observations about the new syllabus documents. There is a tension in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), where the desire to increase participation sits uneasily with the desire to raise standards. If there is too much rigour, it may discourage students from taking these courses; if the courses are too accessible, the necessary standards are not achieved. Some new courses are being designed as part of the resolution of this tension. While some of the details are not yet clear, a new Science Extension course will be introduced and the lower-level Senior Science course (which is not offered by Inaburra) will be replaced by a new Investigating Science course. 

Another aspect of the review has to do with redesigning the various Maths courses. In recent years there has been a trend of more and more able students choosing to do General Maths; in part, this appears to be fuelled by a drive for higher marks through taking the less challenging course. However, it may also be motivated by the recognition of the value of the statistics topic, given the ubiquity of statistics in modern everyday life; at present, statistics finds its home in the Mathematics General course. The intention of redesigning the various courses is to reduce the undesired outcome of more able students taking less challenging courses.

My apologies for going into details that may be of little interest to those families whose children will be either unaffected because they will achieve their HSC before these changes are implemented, or for whom these matters seem far away over some distant horizon. However, given that the formal learning of students takes place in the interaction of curriculum, assessment, pedagogy and environment (digital and physical), changes to curriculum and assessment will be of significance to our children's overall educational experience.

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