The HSC – what it is and what it needs to be.

On December 18, 2020 there was an opinion piece in the Sydney Morning Herald, written by former chairman of the NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA), Tom Alegounarias. His piece, HSC is a glittering asset and we must protect it articulated the merits of the HSC and mounted a defence against a rising number of its critics. Later that afternoon, there was another opinion piece, HSC a brutal and irrelevant way to define ‘intelligence’ in a world opening its eyes to other values penned by journalist, author and columnist for SMH, Malcolm Knox. Both articles prompted tweets from the Executive Director of Catholic Education Diocese of Parramatta (CEDP), Mr Greg Whitby.

So where are we with all of the robust conversation around the New South Wales HSC?

For what it is worth, I agree with Mr Alegounarias when he writes, “The HSC is a rich and varied curriculum developed carefully and conscientiously by teachers and subject experts” and has “high expectations and common rules for everyone“. Also, I agree, in part with Mr Knox who sees the HSC “as a rite of passage and an educational journey, has a lot going for it“. However, what the HSC is and what it needs to be in the future are two different things.

Mr Alegounarias points out that the HSC has “over 4000 paths”. Looking to the future I would suggest those paths need to better align with, as Knox writes, “a world that is finding many different things to value: emotional intelligence, kindness, empathy, understanding, intuition, commonsense, initiative.” There is now a need for skills, capabilities and dispositions to be assessed, along with knowledge and understanding, Using both formative and summative feedback, over time teacher feedback would highlight a student’s strengths and areas they can further develop. This approach is not mutually exclusive to the current curriculum – it can be aligned and connected – and there are many local and global school examples of where this is currently being done.

The HSC (and learning prior to Year 12) needs to assist students to better understand, for example, their ability to ‘witness’, ‘manage’, ‘relate’, ‘inquire’, ‘think’ and ‘create’. Such capabilities could be reflected in a ‘Learner Profile’ and complemented by a student’s online folio of evidence which showcases the very best of ‘who I am’, ‘what I can do’ and ‘what problems I can solve’. The profile and folio would add to the “power and prestige” of the HSC, speak to future employers and offer more insights than the ATAR or a ‘Band’.

This push for a Learner Profile is not a poor response to an “antipathy to systemised assessments”, nor is it a motivated by “impersonal exams”. Learner Profiles and online folios of evidence are not just the suggestions of education lightweights. Thought leaders such as Jan Owen and Peter Hutton as well as world renowned academics including Yong Zhao and Bill Lucas have been arguing for quite some time that education needs to move away from its exam centric ways.

Locally, there are those who inspire in this space. Liverpool Boys High School has developed learning approaches to measure, assess and report on the general capabilities. Rooty Hill High School is renowned for supporting students to develop, practise and refine capabilities across all learning areas as showcased through #MyLearningHub. From 2021, Kurri Kurri High School will introduce a graduation portfolio for Year 12 students who wish to continue with post-school study. At its core is a portfolio of work accompanied by a presentation.

Next year, the University of Melbourne commences a collaborative research venture with selected forward-thinking schools “to lead us away from the ‘grammar of schooling’ that continues to lock our schools into many of the distinctive features of the 20th Century version of education.” Known as the New Metrics Project, university academics will partner with innovative schools to develop new metrics and methods to assess, credential and measure student and school success. Why? Because, “young people must now be educated and assessed in new ways so they are prepared for a very different future.”

Whilst the HSC has been in continuous review for decades it now needs refurbishment. In doing so, we need to keep the best of what it offers and replace what needs to go with new metrics which offer a far more complete picture of each young adult’s knowledge, understanding, skills, capabilities and dispositions, and how they are applied.

As I have said, what the HSC is and what it needs to be are two very different things.

Comments, reflections and questions are welcome.