"Raw or well done - how do you like your HSC?" (1 Viewer)

ajdlinux

Mod: ANU, ATAR/HSC Marks
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This is an opinion piece I wrote about the raw marks issue for issue 5 of unleash, the official magazine of the Youth Action and Policy Association NSW. YAPA is the peak organisation representing young people and youth services in NSW - if you're interested in finding out more about the advocacy work they do, or about subscribing to unleash magazine, check out their website.

Raw or well done - how do you like your HSC?
Andrew Donnellan
Year 12 student from Port Macquarie
who likes debating and eating chocolate ice cream

The Higher School Certificate – the source of much fear, trepidation and stress for around 70,000 of us every year. We diligently complete our assessment tasks, attend to our homework and cram into the early hours of the morning in the days before the exams, all in the hope of getting that crucial ATAR for our preferred uni, or that TAFE course or job offer we've been waiting for. The HSC is a high stakes educational system that has set the course of millions of lives since it was created in 1967.

Therefore, it's vital that we fully understand how the HSC is marked and processed. Most students don't understand how the system works once they've signed their exam completion forms and the papers are couriered back to the marking centres. Not many people know how the exam results are actually determined. You'd assume that the markers simply mark each question out of the maximum allowed for each part, then the computers will just add it all up and that becomes the mark out of 100 that you get on your HSC record, right?

It's not quite that simple, and for good reason. If the Board of Studies only did that, then it would be unfair on people doing their HSC in a year when the examiners decide to set a more difficult test, and it would give an advantage to the luckier ones who get an easier exam. When the HSC courses and regulations were rewritten in 2001 (the 'New HSC' reforms), the Board decided to use a method called 'standards referencing' to keep the system fair for everyone by 'aligning' each student's raw marks to a set of criteria. Each year, a group of senior markers determines what marks are equivalent to each performance band. For example, they might determine that for a particular year's exam a raw mark of 83 is a borderline Band 6, i.e. an 'aligned mark' of 90. Once they have determined these 'cut-off' scores for each band, all exam scores are changed accordingly, leading to the marks that appear on your HSC record. This ensures that the final exam marks stay similar every year.

For the past few years, the Board of Studies has refused to reveal the details of raw marks and band cut-offs. This policy was introduced following a campaign in 2004 led by law student James King, co-founder of the ever-helpful forum Bored of Studies. James (aka Lazarus) and others from the Bored of Studies forums made Freedom of Information requests for their raw marks. At first, the Board approved their requests, but they soon realised that the marks were being posted online and used to work out the band cut-offs, which they decided were a 'confidential aspect' of the HSC, and began denying requests. A rather determined student (and my fellow Port Macquarian!), Hugh Parsonage, decided to try again in 2005, and after years of writing letters and filing appeals his efforts finally paid off in September when the NSW Ombudsman completed an official investigation and released a damning report against the Office of the Board of Studies. The new Board President, Tom Alegounarias, accepted the report and the Board is now approving requests again.

The marking system seems fairly good – highly trained teachers judge every exam to make sure it's fair for everyone, and every year has a comparable set of exam marks. So why would anyone really care about getting access to our raw marks and knowing all these internal details about the marking system? Why is the Board's decision to start releasing raw marks again so important?

Being able to find out our raw marks is important for several reasons. Firstly, we have a right to access government records, for any reason we want, even if it's just our own curiosity. This right is recognised in laws such as the Privacy and Personal Information Protection Act and the Freedom of Information Act. There must be a very strong reason for an agency to deny us that right. The public service has been known to have a 'culture of secrecy', and that's something which we must prevent.

Secondly, given the fact that the HSC is so important, the general public has a right to know how the Board of Studies applies its educational standards. The course documents use very vague terms, and the only reference sources we have are the (admittedly excellent) Standards Packages. Without knowing the cut-off marks, we can't be sure that the judges have been using those Standards Packages properly in determining the cut-offs every year.

Thirdly, being able to access raw marks will help in ensuring that exams are being marked accurately. As the Ombudsman's report says, the Board of Studies “is expected to ensure 100% accuracy”. As we all know, no government agency is ever perfect, and without being given access to raw marks, there's no way to see whether your results have been calculated correctly – if you think your marks have been miscalculated, all you can do is trust their 'clerical recheck' system.

The Board of Studies claimed that releasing raw marks to students would 'compromise' the integrity of the system. Other states don't seem to have this same issue: in Victoria, for example, the VCAA publishes all grade cut-offs, and will send you a Statement of Marks for less than $10. Yes, if the Board releases the cut-off details, there will be some issues. People will misinterpret what the marks mean and start complaining – but far from an excuse to withhold this critical information, I think it's best used as an opportunity to educate the community on how the HSC works. The Board is actually beginning to do this through the new 'How your HSC works' section on their website, which explains the basics of standards referencing and how the processes of alignment and moderation work. This is a good start, but it should go even further.

The Ombudsman's report and the Board of Studies' new policy on releasing raw marks is a great move towards accountability and transparency in the HSC. It's essential for ensuring the quality of our education system and keeping the system fair for everyone.
 
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