Unscored VCEs show not enough is being done to support students

Students around Australia are receiving their ATARs this week, and regardless of their scores, they all should be incredibly proud.

The hard work and stressful exams required to obtain an ATAR are understandably loathed by many. But the challenge of the experience is precisely what can lead to immense learning in the final years of school. This is why the ATAR, despite considerable flaws, is arguably one of the most successful parts of Australia’s education system. Unfortunately, the rigour of the senior secondary experience is very much at risk.

The stress of trying to get a strong ATAR is loathed by many students.Credit:Dominic Lorrimer

An increasingly large proportion of VCE students are withdrawing from end-of-year exams and completing an unscored VCE certificate, meaning they will not receive an ATAR. One in ten VCE students in 2021 went unscored, and experts predict an increase in 2022.

Universities now have various alternative pathways into programs, so unscored VCE students, as well as low-ATAR graduates, will still have many good options. But obtaining an ATAR is still the most straightforward and opportunity-rich pathway for students into higher education. It is therefore concerning that so many students are forgoing an ATAR. The increase in students doing unscored VCE is a big red flag that our education system is not providing enough support to students – both in terms of mental health support and the opportunity to learn.

It is clear that some schools pressure students to withdraw from scored VCE. Well-intentioned schools might be concerned that low-performing students will fail to complete VCE altogether, so they encourage the unscored route which allows for alternative (and potentially less rigorous) assessments. This approach may have some merit if it led to higher completion rates, but this does not seem to be the reality as school completion rates may, in fact, be declining.

There are also a few schools with not-so-great intentions pushing students to go unscored in an effort to protect the VCE reputation of the school. This practice is plainly unethical. We need more data transparency about the number of unscored students in each school to allow for greater monitoring and to decrease the incentive to distort public scores.

Students with low ATARS or an unscored VCE can still obtain a place at some universities.Credit:Glenn Hunt

Regardless of intentions, discouraging low-performing students from getting an ATAR avoids addressing the core issue: the need to improve student learning. This sends a dangerous message to already vulnerable students about the confidence our education system has in their ability to learn.

There are legitimate reasons for going unscored. Some students cite test anxiety or just a general desire to reduce stress in Year 12. We should not simply think of these students as lacking motivation. The VCE exam system is demanding, and some students may find the pressure overwhelming. But our senior secondary system has existed for many years with success. So, what has changed for students today, to make one-in-ten feel like they cannot overcome this academic challenge?

The COVID learning disruptions and the associated decline in student mental health are no doubt partially to blame. Hopefully, students will feel better supported in their learning as we come out of the pandemic over the next few years.

However, Australia has been dropping in the global rankings of school systems for two decades. International assessments continuously show us that each cohort of students is learning less than the last. It is unfortunately not hard to imagine that the 15-year-olds that showed signs of learning declines on these assessments became 17-year-olds struggling with the rigour of VCE exams.

We know that our education system has failed to teach these students to the level of their past peers, but the solution is not to keep lowering our expectations. Instead of just passive accommodation, our students deserve significant intervention.

We can maintain a rigorous senior secondary program if we raise the achievement of students in lower year levels. Teachers in years 7-10 tend to get substantially less support and attention, but they are responsible for the foundational learning and confidence that allows students to be successful in their final years of school.

The biggest opportunity is in primary school, which our education system tends to deprioritise. This is where students learn to read, develop numeracy, and importantly learn basic knowledge of the world that prepares them for deeper understanding. We should introduce greater rigour – and support – for teachers and students across all years of learning.

The ATAR – for all of its flaws – is one of the few parts of our education system holding our expectations for student learning high. The standardisation of the scoring that comes from the ATAR keeps our higher education system transparent and fair.

Our system in Australia compares favourably to the US, for example, where ‘holistic’ admissions systems can inadvertently lead to extra pressure on students to perform in sports and arts as well as academics. Australia does not have as many stories of people gaming university admissions by joining a fake rowing team or by having family legacy connections – yet. The concern is that with fewer students obtaining ATARs, there is the possibility that we will end up with a more opaque, less rigorous, and less equitable education system.

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