Australian universities need to learn what school-leavers know

The school system’s focus on relative over absolute standards makes it difficult to judge applicants’ potential, says Conor King

December 16, 2019
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A lot of attention is being paid in Australia to the transition from school to subsequent education and employment.

The government has commissioned Peter Shergold, chancellor of Western Sydney University, to report on how to improve the transition into work or further education. And it has updated the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians, which sets out the national purposes of schooling and provides the basis of the Australian Curriculum.

That document, now renamed the Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Education Declaration, focuses on advice, pathways and credit. It covers issues such as how to improve careers advice; how to encourage each student to think about their future options; and how to improve understanding of how school learning can lead into vocational and higher education.

All these issues of process are important. Much less attention, however, is paid to the education foundation that school students actually obtain, and its relevance to future education and training.

The Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) 2018 results may see a change in this dynamic. Published earlier this month, these show that, at best, the educational outcomes of Australian students have stayed static – or, more likely, drifted backward in recent years. The concern should not be about where Australians rank against their international peers, however; just as we want good education outcomes in all parts of Australian society, we should be pleased about good outcomes throughout the world. Our concern should, rather, be with how much young Australians are learning compared with their predecessors.

The Shergold review’s discussion paper asks the right question: what skills should a person leave school with? An effective transition to tertiary education and training requires universities, colleges and training providers to understand what school-leavers already know or can do. Yet the strange reality is that while there are regular statements of students’ learning levels throughout school, there is none at the end of Year 12 in most Australian states.

With the exception of New South Wales, senior secondary outcomes are adjusted and normalised to inform about the relative standing of each student but not to explicate the actual level of capability. This may avoid the worries about grade inflation that have circled around A-level results in the UK, but the effect of the normalisation is that we do not know what change – if any – there has been to Year 12 outcomes over time.

However, the Pisa results showing an absolute decline in Australian outcomes for 15-year-olds suggest that the capability two years later, at the end of school, must also be falling. People like me, it seems, may have been wrong to dismiss complaints about falling entry standards as idealisations of the past.

Universities are far from blameless here. We created the rankings that ask not “are you capable of doing my course?” but “are you more or less capable than the next applicant?”. The Australian Tertiary Academic Ranking (ATAR) is an effective means to select among those who are suitable when demand for places outstrips supply: the case for some courses at each university, and most courses at some universities. The generally accepted wisdom is that the higher an applicant’s academic capability, the greater reason there is to admit them.

But the purpose of tertiary education is not to put school-leavers in a box for life based on their Year 12 outcomes. It is to support each one to gain more knowledge and skills. The more informative the statement of Year 12 outcomes is, the better placed everyone will be to build off it.

In implementing the revised Melbourne (Alice Springs) Declaration, each state and territory should make sure the certificates provide a clear, criterion-based statement of the learning outcomes of each student, encapsulated in a way that is useful across the breath of tertiary education and employment. A focus back on them would help reduce the pressure of Year 12 by emphasising what our school students actually have learned, rather than where they rank against peers.

And, for universities and colleges, it would allow student selection to be based directly on the all-important issue of whether applicants have the minimum level of capability required to do the course.

Conor King is executive director of the Innovative Research Universities group.

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