When Simon Crook wrote The Amazing Secrets of band six last year for AARE, I had no idea it would become one of the all-time best read posts of EduResearch Matters (now number 15 out of nearly 500, with a spike during the HSC results period). Those of you who read Amazing Secrets last year will have been familiar with the important points raised in the last few days in the Sydney Morning Herald regarding Band 6s and measuring HSC success , , , . With any luck, through the SMH, these issues will have a much wider audience and may provide incentive and leverage to key stakeholders to do something about the current state of play.
A Quick Recap
NSW is obsessed with HSC performance, particularly Band 6s. Every year, the SMH, Telegraph and other media outlets publish school ranks determined by numbers of Band 6s. The SMH also publishes the Honour Roll of those students who achieved Band 6 in each of their subjects. Yet it has already been shown you cannot compare Band 6s between different subjects, so you cannot tally total Band 6s and make a fair comparison between schools or students. In fact, some lower bands in more rigorous subjects actually contribute more to ATAR than Band 6s in less rigorous subjects.
As previously described, the standards-based ‘Band Description’ model for the HSC was never designed for comparison between subjects. One of the creators and custodians of the HSC, Professor James Tognolini, reiterated last week that:
“for better or worse there was no attempt to make the standards equivalent when the system was set up … in most subjects there was no attempt to align a band 6 performance in one subject with the band 6 performance in another. The purpose was to report what it is students know and can do, not make comparisons across subjects.”
In response to Professor Tognolini’s 50/50 choice, the situation is for the worse. Whatever the original intentions, most of society assumes they are equivalent, that a ‘Band 6 is a Band 6’. The whole media, parental choice and school marketing system perpetuates this flawed metric of comparison. It is tempting to blame the media, and the SMH in particular, for their role in this mess, but they are only reporting what they are allowed to report. As I pointed out last year, and as the SMH articles highlighted, more and better comparative and value-add (growth) data should be reported to provide a fairer narrative of both school and student achievement. The CSNSW paper the SMH references makes some good suggestions in this regard. These include several possible alternative measures that could be published including:
- Non-HSC data, such as vocational education completion rates and post-school outcomes
- Median ATAR (or a suitable proxy for scaled marks)
- Growth or ‘value-add’ (as suggested last year)
- Band distributions, “which better show the range of achievements within schools, and any shifts over time”.
In order for this to happen, someone high up needs to provide the requisite permission.
But the issue is not solely about which school performance data can be published in the media.
It is also time to start seriously talking about improving the HSC as a whole. I’m not talking about getting rid of the HSC, or even a massive overhaul of the assessment, but evolving it in line with the education landscape in NSW in 2022+, rather than continuing with the same model devised last millenium.
A new education landscape of accountability
In the past twenty odd years, the status of the HSC has evolved from the local NSW matriculation qualification affecting university entry to an incredibly high-stakes commodity that can make or break a school/principal/teacher/student. NSW government high schools are now accountable to the School Success Model with targets for increased Band 5 & 6s. Some of these school targets in particularly challenging local contexts are unlikely to be reached, setting schools and individual subjects up to fail, or unduly influencing their educational offerings (see Detrimental Effects below). Many non-government schools and school systems have similar blanket accountabilities and targets which are again setting up certain locally challenged schools and subjects to fail. The HSC was never designed to be used this way, so it must evolve accordingly.
While the NSW HSC is a strong, established credential of quality assessment for NSW school leavers, over time, one particular well-intended design feature has produced counterproductive consequences. These consequences are detrimental to teachers and students, particularly in critically important HSC subjects. Furthermore, these subjects are key to the Australian economy, for example, the sciences and technical and vocational (STEM) subjects. The particular design feature of concern is the inconsistency and application of the HSC performance ‘Band Descriptions’ for different subjects.
There is an extreme variation in the proportions of students allocated to each of the performance bands in different subjects. For example, in 2021:
This is NOT a fair go for all. As can be seen, under the current system the science, technology and vocational subjects are essentially discriminated against. Despite this extreme variation, the band percentages are used as the primary measure of student and school achievement, including in merit lists and strategic targets. Thus bands have become the key driver of detrimental effects to teaching and learning:
- Warped student subject choice: ‘able’ students are increasingly choosing (or being forced into) subjects with increased access to Band 6s, thereby prioritising access to Band 6s over academic rigour. This in turn negatively impacts future pathways, particularly for diverse cohorts, including female representation.
- Reduced school subject offerings: many schools are axing critical subjects and skewing their strategic directions for hiring and investing in subjects/faculties due to gaming the system towards more Band 6s. This is further exacerbated and even intrinsically encouraged by the worsening skilled teacher shortages in e.g. mathematics and the sciences
- Accountabilities tied to Band 6s (see A new education landscape of accountability above)
- Teacher performance measurement tied to Band 6s: blanket targets and teacher performance measures can have a devastatingly negative impact upon staff teaching subjects with low proportions in Band 6, contributing to the widely reported teacher shortage and retention problems in critical subjects, poor well-being and depleted morale, particularly with the existential threats of ‘dud ministers’
As mentioned, the use of bands in this way was never part of the design remit for the new HSC in 2000. But over the years the performance bands have evolved into high-stakes features. High-stakes indicators must be strong, reliable and valid. The variation in Band Descriptions, and the proportions of students allocated to each band across subjects means they are no longer reliable or valid as high-stakes performance indicators. They must be open to scrutiny and reform.
Evolving the HSC
There is one primary way to evolve the HSC: by strategic reforms to the bands. Reforming the bands needn’t be extensive, expensive, or threaten the HSC standards approach, or the ATAR. Bands could still allow for disciplinary differences, but with improved comparability and fairness. Myself and a loose band of academics and researchers have considered models that could be much simpler and cheaper than the current arrangements, yet strengthen the reliability and validity of bands as educational indicators. As a side benefit, they could also improve clarity on standards and exemplar material in the ‘Standards Packages’ to directly strengthen teaching and learning. We are currently making representations to key stakeholders to outline the details of these reforms.
We have used our collective expertise and have developed possible pathways to reform bands and sustain the HSC into the future. Such reforms would counter the detrimental consequences of current arrangements, mitigate emerging risks and ensure that the HSC remains a strong credential for the next generation of students in NSW. We need a fair go for all; it would be un-Australian to be otherwise.
Dr Simon Crook is director of CrookED Science, a STEM education consultancy, and Honorary Associate at the School of Physics, University of Sydney. He works with primary and high school teachers and students around many aspects of science and STEM education, and assists the Sydney University Physics Education Research (SUPER) group with their work, including liaising with NESA regarding science syllabuses. His PhD research evaluated the impact of technology on student attainment in the sciences. Previously, Simon was a high school physics teacher.