Year 12 exams: Our kids deserve better than this
Oct 29 2016
For many students, year 12 exams are a stressful box-ticking exercise that prize performance over mastery and data over potential, writes Gabrielle Stroud. But our kids deserve an education that produces creative, innovative thinkers — not robots.
Students around Australia are currently sitting their final year 12 exams, for which they will be studying, cramming, vomiting.
I know I won’t be the only one wondering: what will they learn from the experience? And how relevant in 2016 is this standardised test?
I can still remember the day my HSC results arrived. I was disappointed and disheartened. That final score didn’t capture what I was capable of and it didn’t capture ‘me’.
The real sting came when my best friend rang; she’d scraped through with a pass and was angry — angry at her result, angry at mine and angry at the world. Our friendship never recovered.
What value is there in pitting kids against each other? It’s a question posed by Lucy Clark — journalist and author of Beautiful Failures — a book that interrogates Australia’s current education system.
Clark watched with frustration and heartache as her daughter failed — “by all the standard markers” — the HSC. She has seen firsthand the effects of the Higher School Certificate on young Australians and questions the limited definition of ‘success’ that underpins it.
Clark echoes the sentiments of some of the world’s ‘big thinkers’ in education. The UK’s Sir Ken Robinson, recognised internationally as an educational innovator, describes our system as a structure that tries to meet the future by doing what was done in the past.
And he’s correct — our system is still based on the original industrial revolution model, which is driven by economic imperatives and the idea that academia is the only measure of intelligence.
Pasi Sahlberg, a former teacher and now Finland’s education policy advisor, describes standardisation as the worst enemy of curiosity. And what is the HSC but one very long, very weighty, standardised test?
Exam season can make sick kids sicker
Having supervised the HSC, I have seen the effects on students of the month-long procedure.
Those who already struggle with anxiety, depression and other mental health issues push themselves, raging against their instincts and wellbeing.
Some are hospitalised before the first week is over. For others, the HSC coincides with that peculiar moment in life when a curve ball comes your way — a family member dies, an accident occurs, a diagnosis is given.
For those kids, exam season becomes fraught with additional stress and paperwork, documents that must be signed in triplicate to justify their need for special consideration.
And then there are those students who are seemingly well-equipped for their year 12 exams.
They chew their nails. The make themselves sick. They cry. They battle through, valiantly brain-dumping everything they know onto the page, stopping only to stretch fingers cramped from the ancient process of writing longhand for hours on end.
Many slam their booklets shut with the words “thank God that’s over” and wonder if the contents of that booklet will ever be of use to them in the future.
Some students journey through the HSC relatively unscathed. They find themselves on the other side with a ‘good mark’ — a magic number that gives them entry into university.
Even so, they soon discover that magical numbers provide no guarantee of future success and certainly no guarantee of happiness. They survive the gruelling rigours of final exams only to face the next hurdle life presents.
And then the question of equity rears its head — if only some of our students are able to capitalise on their HSC experience, is the test itself a fair measure? Is this an equitable system? Does everyone have a fair chance to succeed?
What should a 2016 education look like?
It is easy to fall into what Sir Ken describes as “the habits of our institutions”, but what we need to consider in 2016 is that although our education system hasn’t changed, our students have.
This cohort are digital natives; they have lived most of their lives carrying Google in their pocket. Some will go on to create their own jobs and many are already working almost full time and maintaining a life that was once the domain of a twenty-something.
Still others are managing their own businesses — YouTube channels or online stores — earning good incomes from the world wide web.
Asking these students to write things they’ve committed to memory, for hours on end, seems to go against everything we need them to demonstrate as productive members of our current society.
These are students besieged with information — what good is it asking them to remember and regurgitate it? Surely in the final years of school in the 21st century we need our students to show us that they are resilient, creative, critical thinkers who can navigate their way through the digital world in which we dwell.
As Finland’s Sahlberg argues: we are living in a knowledge society which demands people capable of working with ideas. Surely we need to equip students with the skills to connect emotionally, and collaborate, with others.
Surely we’re looking for innovative thinkers. And surely we’ve evolved enough to realise that the subjects associated with academia are not the only measure of success.
A good result won’t necessarily get you a degree, or a job
For many students today, year 12 exams have become a box-ticking exercise, a rite of passage that has to be endured because their parents, teachers and society expect it of them.
As Sir Ken says, these students no longer believe the “story” that a good result will lead to a good degree — which will in turn lead to a good job.
These students know there are multiple pathways to university, regardless of how they perform in final exams. And they know that even if they earn a university degree, a job isn’t guaranteed.
Lucy Clark’s daughter was repeatedly told that “school isn’t for everyone”. Yet school is — or should be — for everyone, it just hasn’t evolved to meet everyone’s needs.
Ours is an archaic system that still values — as the HSC epitomises — performance over mastery and data over potential.
It is unfair to impose these snapshot standardised tests on our children; the results do not show us what our students have learned, gained and understood from their school experience — only that they can regurgitate facts.
We need to start valuing the ‘whole child’
Today’s students deserve — and are hungry for — an education (and assessment regime) that challenges them and values their future.
They need an education that looks and feels different to the experiences we had 20, 30, 40 years ago because they are preparing for a world that is significantly different to the one we graduated in.
Their education and assessment should include opportunities for collaboration, projects that showcase innovation, and experiences that build their social and emotional skills.
We need to stop holding up only standardised test results to show how students, teachers and schools performed.
Instead, we should start having conversations with teachers about our children’s development, effort and interests. Our children should be celebrated for having a go, for shifting out of their comfort zone, for creating, for having an opinion.
We need to start prizing values like bravery, humility, compassion and perseverance. And we need to view learning as bigger and broader than three-hour exams administered in the month of October.
Education should not be reduced to tests alone and our students should not be reduced to numbers.
Gabrielle Stroud is a freelance writer, novelist and recovering teacher. Her critical commentary of Australia’s education system was published in Griffith Review’s Edition 51 Fixing The System.