HSC & NAPLAN - A Better Way

8 May 2017

This article was published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 8 May 2017

In principle it is hard to object to minimum standards for literacy and numeracy in the HSC. If it is to be a world-class credential (as argued by its creator, NESA – the NSW Educational Standards Authority) it should not be awarded to students who are functionally illiterate or innumerate. But wouldn’t it be unfair if students got to the end of Year 12 and only then discovered that they didn’t meet the standard? Surely it is in their interests to have an early warning system - some sort of pre-testing that would show up problems when they still have time to do something about it. Better still, what if we could use a test that they are already doing years earlier to give them a heads-up, thus avoiding additional testing which increases pressure on students and costs to the system?

And so the Year 9 NAPLAN/HSC furore is born.

Some students (and parents) have panicked, assuming that anything less than a Band 8 in Year 9 will be the end of their educational career: no HSC, no tertiary options, a total wash-out at age 15. So schools are offering up reassurance. Fully 70% of students are expected not to pre-qualify in both literacy and numeracy – you’re hardly a failure if you don’t make the top third of the State! You can make multiple attempts at the online test in Years 11 and 12 (or even after) so there’s plenty of time to get yourself to the standard. In any case, the standard is likely to be somewhat lower than a Year 9 Band 8 level so the chance of this actually disqualifying a student is pretty small. Curiously, it is also clear that students will still be awarded an ATAR which, rather than the HSC itself, is the qualifier for university. So why panic? This is just a routine process, with the full expectation that any moderately diligent student will make it.

It is right that there is no cause for panic. But there are also some practical realities.

Young people can be hard on themselves. At the age of 15 it is easy for them to lose confidence and perspective. We will very clearly tell them that failure to pre-qualify three years ahead of time is not, in fact, a failure. Some will believe us. Others will have difficulty hearing that message, and will put pressure on themselves – sometimes long before Year 9 NAPLAN is even due – or will lose confidence because their first experience of external testing tells them they are ‘not good enough’.

Schools and parents will have a crucial role in helping students maintain a proper perspective. It would be naïve, however, to think that all of the negative effects can be avoided. For some young people school will become very stressful at an age when they have, until now, been mercifully free of high-stakes testing. Others are likely to read a perfectly normal indicator that they need a little more time as a searing judgment of incompetence. The numbers will, we hope, be small but we owe it to those students to ask the obvious question: is it worth it?

At this stage, the scale of the problem which the minimum standard is supposed to address is not clear. How many students are currently awarded an HSC despite functional illiteracy? How does that proportion compare to the 70% of students who will, at Year 9, be tested and found to be (as yet) wanting? There is also a fundamental question: if a student does reach the end of thirteen years of schooling and is still functionally illiterate or innumerate does the problem lie with the student or the schooling? Young people must bear the consequences of their own decisions, but are we entirely comfortable in concluding that withholding the HSC from a student is going to address the true cause of the problem? Identifying a potential problem in Year 9 is good, but wouldn’t early intervention by schools be even better?

Every school in NSW has literacy and numeracy data for its students from the age of eight. Every school in NSW is inspected by and registered with NESA. Surely there is a better way.

Ms Elizabeth Stone