Rethinking the HSC
I still remember the day I finished my last HSC exam.
It had been a hot November day, and as I was walking from the bus stop to my front door, the sky opened and it began to pour. I had no umbrella or jacket. The air had that smell of fresh rain on hot concrete. The streets were scattered with purple and brown smudges from jacaranda petals crushed by tires into the asphalt. The rain soaked into a uniform I never needed to wear ever again.
Suddenly, I felt free.
I began to run, sprinting down the middle of the quiet streets. It was the lifting of the worst burden I had ever felt. When I arrived home, my stepdad was waiting with a bottle of champagne.
There’s a lot of drama in that memory. I was proud of myself for not just making it, but smashing it. I had pushed myself for two years to do the best work I could, spent hours inside working instead of drinking and having fun and getting in trouble. When I got my ATAR, my achievements were confirmed.
And, of course, I was completely innocent to the fact that all that pressure was an insane burden to place on an 18-year-old.
I was spiralling into panic about my work and future with weekly regularity. I was swamped under a workload that most adults would struggle with. I was expected to develop self-sufficiency when no one had taught me how to do that. And for most students, the reality is that the HSC does little to prepare them for 'the real world' (unless they take the route I did and become an educator themselves).
This year's HSC has been one of the most debated on record. With millions of students still in lockdown, learning and burning out online, many who may not be vaccinated for weeks, a solution needs to be found.
The government's current plan is to delay the HSC to early November, with marks released mid-January. With timetables and vaccination plans changing constantly, students are left feeling more anxious and frustrated than ever before. While the government sticks to their guns and insists that in-person exams are the only way forward, other notable people are floating their own solutions. Tony Farley, the executive director of Sydney Catholic Schools, argued in an interview for the Sydney Morning Herald that the HSC should be replaced with other assessment methods this year-
“The HSC should not go ahead in its traditional form as it is neither fair nor practical and the most disadvantaged students will suffer the greatest detriment… The HSC is more than a final exam and there is sufficient data and capacity to award an HSC mark and provide an indicative ATAR based on school-based assessments and NESA [NSW Education Standards Authority] moderation.”
It seems like a good situation. The HSC is usually determined by an internal assessment (made by schools) and an external one (exams and major works)- the solution posed by Farley puts more responsibility on schools and less on NESA. It is certainly possible to allow individual schools to approximate a mark. But this solution needs context.
Let’s take a hypothetical student who is aiming for an ATAR of at least 70 to get into his university course. He is doing biology, but he struggles with it. He enjoys the subject, but he finds it hard to motivate himself to study because there is so much course content he has to memorise. He manages to get a B on his first test, but ends up getting a D on his second. After this blow, he makes it his mission to improve his mark. He studies every weekend, starts asking more questions in class, and his teacher and parents notice his new enthusiasm. But, weeks before his test, the lockdown happens. He keeps studying, but the rules change and his HSC mark, and his ATAR, will now be based on his previous assessments. Gone is any prospect that he can achieve high marks on his last test. Gone is his 70 ATAR. His path to university just got a lot rockier, not to mention his new lack of faith in the education system that essentially lied when it told him that working hard would get him good marks.
Unfortunately, this isn’t a hypothetical situation. This is the harsh reality that thousands of students are facing now, including some of my own. Students can’t be approximated- they are individuals with complexities and struggles that can never be captured by a mark that averages out what they achieve in a year of learning. The burden on their educators is just as unfair. Gemma Baldwin, co-president of the Visual Arts and Design Educators Association, argued this last year when art teachers were asked to mark their student’s HSC major works. A major work is undertaken at the end of Year 11, with teachers often being involved in the process at every step of the way. Baldwin argued that-
“It caused enormous upheaval… You want the best for your kids, and you’re being judged on their success. Some teachers were as optimistic as possible, and those results stood: some teachers were trying to be as objective as possible and those results also stood.”
If this situation is difficult to understand, imagine the anxiety it puts in the teenagers who have to deal with the consequence. No one sums up this chaos better than someone like Kaelin Bolton. Kaelin is an HSC student from Menai, who voiced her own struggles in this article for The Catholic Weekly-
Studying alongside the Covid outbreak has also created a bubble of stress that seems to be inescapable. I can’t speak for everyone, but my home was my relaxing space. Now the distinction between home and school is blurred…. Simultaneously, the cancellation of sport, social interaction and the milestone events of the HSC year all weigh heavily on my mind…. Others I know are more reluctant to return to school out of fear of contracting Covid-19 and spreading it to their vulnerable families, an added stress which is certainly not helpful when trying to successfully perform across our subjects.
Reading her words makes my blood boil. The end of school is so much more than a mark, as Kaelin and her peers know better than anyone else. Imagine if you didn’t get a graduation ceremony or formal. Imagine all that celebration being ripped away, but the HSC pressure remaining- all work, no play. As a tutor, it is my job not only to help my students study, but also to help them cope- how can I do that successfully when those in charge of the HSC seem to be blind to how bad this situation already is? This isn't a problem waiting to happen in November. These kids are doing the math around their ATARs from the end of Year 11. Changing the HSC now is like telling marathon runners mid-race that the winner will be decided 100 metres in front of the finish line. This compounds the inequalities that are already built into the HSC. Students with the money to hire tutors, going to private schools who are more likely to advocate for them, with parents that are home more and who have university educations themselves, with less siblings who also need attention, who live in a nice, big, quiet house with fast internet- these students have always had an advantage.
I'm not proposing a solution in one blog post. I understand that the government has students' best interests at heart. University-educated politicians are proud to spend $100 million a year on marking and running the HSC, more than any other state. But they don't remember their own exams anymore. They don't know what's happening in classrooms and Zoom calls every day.
These kids, on the other hand, are the experts.
We ask students to write essays about Modernism, capitalism, religion, multiculturalism, the legal system, and the complexities of the universe. In English, we ask them to engage with complex ideas about the state of the world and ask them to come up with their own opinions. But then, the government turns away from the reality of their experience in favour of delays and changing plans. We tell students to look after their mental health, then do nothing to mitigate the impact of assessments, isolation, family issues, and everything else Year 12 can throw at them from impacting their mental health. Having had the privilege of teaching HSC students for over 5 years, I can say without a doubt that no one understands the HSC better than HSC students.
It might seem politically unnecessary to change the HSC, to reimagine what this system could be, or to make it more flexible so it can better suit the chaos of the students it is designed to assess. Education has a short-term memory, as students and parents enter and leave the system so fast there is often no need to protest for change after your own kids graduate. But every time I listen to my students get angry, cry, and lose their ambition over this government’s ‘solution’ to conducting exams in these conditions, I can’t help but think about the future. Some of these kids are already of voting age. The news cycle will forget this year’s HSC, but these students won’t.
This year's HSC students won't get the same experiences I did- formals and graduations and that never-ending summer before university. They will, however, be more productive and capable students than any before them. If no one today will change the way we conduct end-of-school exams, change them to focus on mental wellbeing and practical skills, I know one day one of those special kids will.
Baker, J 2021, 'Catholic school boss calls for traditional HSC exams to be cancelled', The Sydney Morning Herald, 26 Jul, <https://www.smh.com.au/national/nsw/catholic-school-boss-calls-for-traditional-hsc-exams-to-be-cancelled-20210726-p58d2j.html>.
Bolton, K 2021, 'Dear Gladys, HSC is tougher than ever', The Catholic Weekly, 4 Aug, <https://www.catholicweekly.com.au/dear-gladys-hsc-is-tougher-than-ever/>.
Baker, J 2021, 'Politics, a pandemic, and the HSC: how it all went off the rails', The Sydney Morning Herald, 7 Aug, <https://www.smh.com.au/national/nsw/politics-a-pandemic-and-the-hsc-how-it-all-went-off-the-rails-20210804-p58fye.html>.
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