Once again I've been pondering the examinations system in New South Wales (NSW), Australia, where he and his children have completed their schooling. Every year this gets raised in some form after results come out. It is raised here again as State schools, not private, that celebrated the top student marks last year.
The systems for final school examinations and assessments are different in other Australian states, not all of which have a final public exam; and also in other countries. For example, England has major final public exams but the United States has school assessments, then a variety of different processes for entry into University. The pros and cons of these various systems are not discussed here, I'm confining this discussion only to the one I'm aware.
At present, in NSW, there is a major public exam at the end of High School (which in Australia is year 12); however the final mark that the student gets for each subject is based on 'both' the mark in the final exam and the assessments conducted during years 11 and 12 by the school.
The assessment system is more complicated than it seems
Complicating this procedure are two other major factors and a number of minor ones and there was hell to play recently when one Sydney private school tried doing an underhanded deal with Sydney University. That idea got squashed.
The school assessment mark (grade) is not simply the final mark that the teachers give to the students, but is 'moderated' between all schools in the state using a statistically rigorous process that is supposed to avoid teachers giving excessively high or low marks for their own students.
This is done by looking at the historic performance of each school in the public examinations, and then comparing that with every other school in the state, and then moderating the teachers' assessments of each student accordingly so the children are 'measured' against the whole cohort in the state, not just against those in their own school.
Special consideration is given on a one-on-one basis where a student is seen to have marks substantially different from the historical 'average' of the school, so that bright children are not disadvantaged and, at the other end, struggling students get the help they need.
This moderation process is similar in other Australian states, including those that do not have a public exam.
But back to NSW. For each individual subject (course) that the student has done, this moderated school assessment mark is averaged with the mark the student gained in the public exam to give the overall mark (grade) for each subject, separately. This is all recorded on one of the two certificates the student receives.
However, in Australia, it is not this final mark in each subject that is the determinant of which university program the student can enter. The individual marks are then subjected to another statistical process, monitored by the universities, to give an absolute 'ranking' (now called Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank, ATAR, in all states except Queensland, but formerly with a wide range of other names and acronyms). This is also statistically moderated against other students.
Theoretically, it is based on the fact that the top 0.1% of students will gain a ranking of 99.9, and so on down the list in 'percentile bands', based on a statistically 'normal' distribution – which looks like the familiar 'bell curve' when plotted out as a graph. However, the reality is that it is not quite as mathematically simple in practice as in theory.
'Systems drive behaviour'
As is always the case, 'systems drive behaviour'. The 'system' of using this one ATAR number to determine university entry drives the whole body of year 12 students each year (and their parents and teachers) to focus on the 'behaviour' to take notice of ONLY this one number that represents their ranking in the state. It becomes an obsession – an end-point in itself despite the many and various efforts of the authorities and educators and politicians to try to make sure each student feels valued for the work they have put into their individual courses and subjects.
But of course, with the hindsight of having four children go beyond that 'ranking number' and proceed to various forms of higher education, it is not the end but only the beginning of the students' adult lives. Once they have entered a university or technical college course, or an apprenticeship, or the workforce then they get on with their lives and the ATAR that seemed so important at the time is now totally irrelevant.
'Consideration' can be given in cases of disadvantage
In such a large system (approximately 70,000 students each year), there will inevitably be students who come to some sort of grief or feel disadvantaged on the day of the final exam.
Each student is so concerned about maximising their 'ranking number' that they wish to have the highest mark (grade) that they can get for each individual subject. So the authorities (the Board of Studies in NSW) has developed systems for students to be able to document these mishaps and gain some consideration.
He says that sometimes the system itself creates disadvantage. In 1996 the year his eldest daughter undertook the HSC in Moruya, south coast NSW, country schools were also given a school assessment mark on the basis of the culminative results of Year 12 students which impacted on each student's private results (the system subsequently changed due to so many 'heavy' complaints).
Instead of being awarded an UAI mark that would have allowed her to do Law in a number of university's closer to home in Moruya, she was accepted into Law at UNE in Armidale which was a long way from Moruya (where she gained Dux and several High Distinctions).
In theological speak this is referred to as "Structural Violence" where the structures in place (whatever the situation) violates a person or persons. It is incredibly important that Christians involve themselves in these issues so as to minimise such incidents, regardless of how difficult the way ahead might be from the opposing forces.
Dr Mark Tronson is a Baptist minister (retired) who served as the Australian cricket team chaplain for 17 years (2000 ret) and established Life After Cricket in 2001. He was recognised by the Olympic Ministry Medal in 2009 presented by Carl Lewis Olympian of the Century. He mentors young writers and has written 24 books, and enjoys writing. He is married to Delma, with four adult children and grand-children.
Mark Tronson's archive of articles can be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/mark-tronson.html