Opinion NAPLAN and the HSC: Don't leave the strugglers with nothing

The consequences of being denied the HSC are potentially quite profound, writes Andrew Martin.


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OPINION: The latest results of the year 9 NAPLAN tests in NSW have shown some improvement, the data reveals.This is in part attributed to the new requirement for students to attain a Band 8 in literacy and numeracy before receiving their final school credential, the Higher School Certificate.

The year 9 students of 2017 are the first cohort to be subject to this requirement (for the 2020 HSC). It has been said that these students (and their teachers and parents) were motivated to invest greater effort into the NAPLAN tests in order to attain this new required standard, so to be eligible to receive their HSC.

As we proceed with this new requirement in NSW (and as other Australian states and territories consider it), it is vital to guard against unanticipated consequences that may disproportionately disadvantage those who stand to lose the most from these new criteria.

Based on 2017 data, it appears that most year 9 students in NSW will need to successfully re-sit at least one literacy or numeracy test to be eligible to receive an HSC. Now, then, is a good time to carefully consider what happens to those who do not meet the new HSC qualifying criteria.

I want to clarify my position. Literacy and numeracy are critical for school - and beyond. Tests and testing have an important place in learners' academic development. I believe the NAPLAN tests are high quality tests of literacy and numeracy and can provide important diagnostic information to individual learners to assist their literacy and numeracy (though publication of school NAPLAN results is another matter). Exploring efforts to enhance literacy and numeracy is a fundamental responsibility of educators and educational researchers.

I recognise the value of much of what we do. However, when new requirements are introduced, it is necessary to apply a close lens to consider how they affect all learners.

When the new HSC requirements were announced in 2016, universities were quick to reassure students that it was the ATAR they were interested in and not so much the HSC. Thus, students who do not attain Band 8 in NAPLAN do not receive the HSC, but they do receive an eligible ATAR, and can proceed to university.

But what about students with no plans to go to university? What about HSC students with a mix of subjects (e.g., vocational) who are not eligible for an ATAR? What about students who receive a very low ATAR, officially recorded as "30 or less"? What about students for whom high stakes "failure" in year 9 decreases their motivation for subsequent literacy and numeracy tests? Even re-sitting the tests, if they do not meet the literacy and numeracy standards and do not receive an HSC, they will leave school with nothing or very little by way of a credential.

The tricky thing here is that the students most at risk of not attaining a Band 8 tend to be those most unlikely to pursue an ATAR, or receive a "credible" ATAR. They are, then, the students most at risk of leaving school with nothing.

I absolutely agree minimum literacy and numeracy standards are important for these young people. But I am concerned these new efforts to improve their literacy and numeracy may inadvertently reduce their post-school options; by denying them a qualification like the HSC.

I recognise that since the 2016 announcement of the new HSC requirements there has been more thought put into assisting at-risk learners and that students can continue to re-sit the tests in years 10, 11, and 12. I also note that students can re-sit the tests after year 12 - but that will be too late. Many will seek an apprenticeship as soon as they complete year 12 - and without an HSC (and potentially no ATAR), they are not competitive. Those failing to meet "minimum" standards five years after the HSC will receive the NSW Record of Student Achievement (RoSA), but this will also be too little too late.

I know some students can be exempted from the literacy and numeracy tests. However, if exempted, students in need of diagnostic feedback on literacy and numeracy would be denied this.

Thus, although more thought, support, and special provisions have been directed to our academic strugglers as these new HSC requirements are implemented, I am not sure they guard against potential risks for some students as they complete year 12 and seek to embark on post-school life.

The consequences of being denied an HSC are profound and potentially protracted for the students who are most in need of it.

Andrew Martin is Scientia Professor and Professor of Educational Psychology in the School of Education (Educational Psychology Research Group) at UNSW.

This opinion piece was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald.