Flat White

Why school exams matter

13 November 2019

4:02 PM

13 November 2019

4:02 PM

Undoubtedly, the Higher School Certificate is hard. But final exams are not intended to be easy — to be some sort of rubber stamp for having sat in a classroom. They are intended to assess how much you have learned.

HSC exams finished on Monday for Year 12 students in New South Wales on Monday and, presumably, so has the ‘student stress’ we hear so much about at this time of the year all around Australia.

Yes, exams are stressful. ATAR scores (of which Year 12 exam results make up a significant part) are not everything and should be kept in perspective, though they do have consequences for student careers. Students gain access to greater opportunities if they perform well, and this inevitably creates some anxiety (if that sounds vaguely familiar, it’s probably because it’s otherwise known as ‘everyday life’ for most people).

Despite the clichés of ‘critical thinking’ and ‘problem-solving’, doing the hard yards at school to acquire deep levels of content knowledge in the core academic subjects remains as valuable as ever.

And exams are a valuable — a crucial — step in the education process. Do you want someone who has never passed a biology exam performing a heart operation? Or someone who has never passed a maths exam designing bridges or flood mitigation systems?

Exams in school also help students prepare for further study and the normal pressures of the workplace. Shielding children from tests — while well-intentioned — does them a disservice.

The HSC is arguably the most rigorous Year 12 credential in Australia and the interim NSW curriculum review acknowledged that the HSC is widely described as “world-class.” Of course, it can be improved, but we should be careful of massive changes that aren’t evidence-based.

HSC results are currently derived half from examinations and half from school-based assessments.

A proposal from the interim NSW curriculum review is to have less emphasis on exams and mandate that each student does a major project. But the problem with take-home projects like this is the lack of accountability and equity — students from more advantaged backgrounds will have greater access to help from parents and tutors.

Another recent thought bubble is to replace the ATAR with a “learner profile” focussing on extra-curricular activities rather than academic achievement to get into university. This would be especially unfair for high-achieving disadvantaged students. Advantaged students tend to have more extra-curricular opportunities, so would gain an unfair benefit in competing for university places against disadvantaged students.

Exams may not be pleasant for students; however, they are the crucial equaliser in education.

Blaise Joseph is an education policy analyst at the Centre for Independent Studies.

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