There is a persistent idea in Australia and beyond that Year 12 exams are incredibly stressful and need to be ditched. You see this seam run though government reports and commentary.
Today, The Conversation, has published a piece arguing that Year 12 exam results can be pretty accurately predicted from Year 9 NAPLAN scores (a standardised assessment taken by Australian students in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9 – although not this year) and so we can use the Year 9 scores and get rid of the Year 12 exams.
This argument is very similar to one I criticised earlier in the year so I will be brief. Year 9 exams work as a good predictor now because they are a low stakes measure. If you make university entrance dependent upon Year 9 exams then instead of stressed 18-year-olds, you will have a bunch of stressed 15-year-olds. What’s more, they will have no incentive to do anything much for their last three years of schooling, despite the author’s rather optimistic hopes of what will happen as a result:
“Our proposal is to allow flexibility for each student to get ready for the next phase of their learning during Year 12. This includes opportunities to use Year 12 to engage in real-world projects, formal apprenticeships, TAFE or university certificates, study abroad (when that can occur again safely), going deeper into advanced courses of interest and providing new supports to promote success without dumbing things down.”
This is before mentioning how unfair such a system would be on those students who work hard during these final three years but are still imprinted with an unshiftable Year 9 score.
I am sceptical about the notion that Year 12 exams are unbearably stressful – certainly not for most students. Previous generations of 18-year-olds have gone to war. And this generation will face job interviews, marriage proposals, unwanted diagnoses, redundancies and a whole range of other pressures as they go through life. An experience of coping with such pressure in a situation that offers no threat to young people’s physical safety is probably a good thing.
The piece in The Conversation also alludes to the concept of learning portfolios, an idea that also features in recent review of Year 12 pathways in Australia.
“Students will leave school with a Learner Profile, identifying the range of their skills, knowledge and experiences. It will include learning and experiences gained inside and outside of school. Students will be guided to recognise the attributes they have acquired through study in the classroom as well as from work experience, volunteering and personal achievement.”
The idea is that this would sit alongside, and enhance, academic measures.
Again, as I have mentioned before, such a plan would benefit the most privileged students – those with an uncle in a particular industry, connections at the local church and time on their hands. It would not benefit the student who catches two buses to school and who works evenings and weekends to supplement the family income. Yes, we can point to the positive use of learner profiles in some case studies at present, but that’s because they are low stakes. Once those with privilege realise that university entrance is linked to them, the gaming will start.
In fact, this already seems to be an issue with entry to elite American colleges. Recently, a case was brought against Harvard on the grounds they were using subjective ratings of personal qualities known as ‘personal ratings’ to discriminate against students from Asian backgrounds. What is fairer, entry based upon a clearly stated and objective standard of an exam or entry based upon a judgement an individual has formed about how personable you are?
In all these situations, it is not enough to focus on the flaws of exams, you also need to coolly consider the proposed alternatives. Yes, students can buy advantage on an exam through access to tuition, but they still have to go alone into the exam room and perform. This acts as something of a leveler.
We could, of course, improve the system in Australia. We need decent alternatives for students who do not wish to go to university. We probably need to go back to more closely aligning Year 12 subjects to university courses – it seems odd that a student who want to study Engineering in Victoria does not need to study physics at Year 11 or Year 12. Australia’s ATAR system is just one way of aggregating exam scores and we could seriously consider alternatives.
But these alternatives still need to be based upon exams if we want to have anything approaching a fair system.