SCHOOLS: by Kevin DonnellyNews Weekly
The case for external, competitive exams
, November 24, 2007
As we move towards a national curriculum, we must reshape our examination structure, writes Kevin Donnelly.Last month's release of a University of Canberra study, arguing that Year 12 external, competitive examinations do not guarantee superior academic performance at the tertiary level compared with school-based assessment, is a welcome addition to the debate about the best way to structure Year 12 curriculum and assessment and to decide tertiary entry.
At the federal level, both the ALP and the Coalition Government are in favour of a national curriculum. While its final form has yet to be decided, there is a consensus, drawing on the Australian Council for Educational Research report Australian Certificate of Education: Exploring a Way Forward
, that Australia will eventually have a single national senior school certificate.
In moving from nine different certificates to a single national Year12 certificate, the ACER report recommends a national standards body be established to identify curriculum essentials - core knowledge and skills - and achievement standards, defined as a nationally consistent framework of levels (A to E) against which student performance would be reported.Dearth of research
The University of Canberra study, while restricted to evaluating the performance of first-year business students at that university, is also welcome given, as noted by the report's authors, the dearth of Australian research evaluating the relationship between different types of assessment systems and academic performance.
Such research is especially vital given recent moves to decide tertiary entry by using a range of assessment tools, including aptitude tests, interviews and measuring employability skills, in addition to the more traditional tertiary entrance rank or equivalent national tertiary entrance rank. Given the competitive and high stakes nature of tertiary selection, especially with courses such as medicine and law, and the profound impact undertaking a degree has on a student's personal development and career prospects, one would like to think that whatever method of selection employed is fair, rigorous and educationally sound.
While Australian research is almost nonexistent, a number of overseas studies stress the value of competitive, external examinations at the secondary level. Such examinations provide strong incentives for students to do well. Teachers and schools are publicly accountable for performance, the results students achieve are comparable and, if structured properly, such examinations foster strong academic knowledge.
On analysing the characteristics of those countries that achieve the best results in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study tests, German academic Ludger Woessmann argues that centralised examinations and standardised tests are associated with higher academic standards.
In Kiel Working Paper No. 983, published in 2000, Woessmann states: "Students in countries with centralised examinations scored 16.1 points higher in mathematics and 10.7 points higher in science than students in countries without centralised examinations."
US academic John Bishop also argues particular countries achieve high standards in international tests because of the presence of what he terms curriculum-based external exit examinations. In a 2001 paper for the Hoover Institution, Bishop states: "Students from countries with medium and high-stakes exit examination systems outperform students from other countries at a comparable level of economic development."
In opposition to the US-style SAT, formerly the Scholastic Aptitude Test, and what he terms minimum competency tests, where students are tested in terms of reasoning ability or generic skills, Bishop also argues that to be successful, examinations must be discipline-based, externally assessed, rank students in terms of multiple levels of achievement and be high stakes in terms of consequences.
Doubts about the usefulness of intelligence tests such as the SAT are echoed by Harvard University's dean of admissions, William Fitzsimmons, when he argues "subject tests were the best predictor of good grades at Harvard, high-school grade point average was second, and the SAT was third".
It makes sense, as argued by a number of university submissions to the ACER's investigation into an Australian Certificate of Education, that students in the final years of secondary schooling are given a solid and substantial initiation into the relevant academic disciplines before beginning tertiary study.
While the University of Canberra report focuses on the success or otherwise of external versus school-based assessment as measured by academic performance in first year business studies, equally as important is how reliable, fair and transparent Year 12 assessment is when deciding tertiary selection.
As noted by a 1992 report evaluating the introduction of the Victorian Certificate of Education, an over-reliance on school-based assessment leads to a situation where teachers are overwhelmed with record-keeping and the need to authenticate students' work. It is also difficult and costly to ensure comparability of grades across schools and to stop students from abusing the system.Penalties and discrimination
An added advantage of external examinations is that they are impersonal and objective and students are not penalised because of their personality or background. As illustrated by the public debate in Adelaide in 2004 over the perception that private school students, especially those with doctors as parents, are discriminated against on entry to medicine, using instruments such as interviews can undermine public trust.
Of interest is that the same debate is current in Britain, where the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service is investigating a range of factors for possible use in deciding tertiary entry, including whether parents have degrees, a candidate's socio-economic, cultural background and the class size and truancy rates of the school attended.
To argue a case for external, competitive examinations does not mean there is no place for school-based assessment.
Since the early 1970s, all states and territories have significantly reshaped senior school certificates and they no longer rely solely on end of year, one-off examinations.
While Queensland and the ACT are alone in having 100 per cent of Year 12 assessment school-based, all other states and territories make use of both external examinations and school-based assessment to varying degrees, ranging from 50-50 in NSW to 80-20 in other states.
As noted in the Senate report Quality of School Education, there is a good deal of debate surrounding the issue of Year 12 standards and how successful schools are in preparing students for tertiary study, especially in Western Australia and South Australia. Given the likelihood that we will soon have a national Year 12 certificate no matter who wins the federal election, such debates will and should continue.- Kevin Donnelly was a member of the steering group for the ACER Year12 report and a past member of the Victorian Board of Studies and the Victorian Year 12 English Panel of Examiners. His book Dumbing Down is available from News Weekly Books. A longer version of this article first appeared in The Australian (October 31, 2007).