The kids know what it takes to succeed.

In Victoria (where I currently work) the VCE exams are about to start. These take place at the end of year 12, and are externally set and marked. Unlike England there are no exam boards from which to choose – every student sitting Economics, say, sits exactly the same exam. From this exam the VCAA (the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority) derives a “study score” which represents each student’s relative grade in that subject when compared to the entire cohort.

During the year there are school-based assessments, but the school awarded grades are moderated against the exams.

From the study scores an ATAR (Australian Tertiary Admission Rank) is calculated which is simply a ranking of all students in the cohort across all subjects on a scale of 0 – 100. The best 20 (approx) students receive an ATAR of 99.95, the next 20 99.90 and so on. ATARs less than 30 aren’t reported.

ATAR scores are the primary discriminator by which students can gain entry to university. Students apply to a number of courses, and the high demand courses and institutions have high ATAR scores necessary for entry. Universities don’t set ATARs for entry beforehand – if they have 500 students applying for a course with 150 places they take the top 150 ATAR scores (in fact, a bit more complicated than that). So to study Arts at the University of Melbourne in 2014 a student needed an ATAR > 92.00 to get in (again, a bit more complicated, but true enough). To study Arts at Federation University in Ballarat a student needed an ATAR of > 50 (approx) as the university and course had lower demand.

So the VCE exams could be fairly described as “high stakes”, although every year around exam time there are lots of newspaper articles about how getting a lower than desired ATAR is not the end of one’s life.  Despite the high stakes nature of the VCE the exams do have general public support – they are thought to be rigorous, difficult but fair, and reward sustained hard work over the year. A generalisation, but these views are shared by students, parents, teachers and politicians. Although the VCE courses and exams are far from perfect, there has been no issue about exams being “dumbed down”, or alternatively that they are simply snapshots that are unrepresentative of the student and should not be used for important life choices (such as which university you can go to).

In schools students and teachers work very hard to prepare for the exams – the study designs are rigorous and there is a lot of content to get through. So how do you succeed at the VCE? Again, the papers are helpful and this time of year publish top tips from last year’s high achieving students – and so does the Department of Education. And a common top tip from students – complete all your school work and then do lots and lots and lots of old exams. Do every old exam you can get your hands on. Get in study groups and do old exam questions together. Do old exams and pester your teachers to mark them. Do old exams and take particular note of the examiners report. But do lots of old exams.

The VCAA very helpfully publishes old exams together with the examiners reports, and there is an entire industry of commercially prepared trial exams and books of exam-type questions sold to schools and students. Schools would typically have trial exams from multiple companies (5+, at least) so together with the real old exams students could easily have access to 25+ trial exams per subject. And the best students do these exams. I visited a school a few weeks ago where the science department handed out bound copies of these trial exams to chemistry & physics students (the only ones I saw) that were easily 200 pages thick – not of coursework, but simply hundreds and hundreds of questions.

So why is this interesting?

1) It’s accepted that the VCE maths exam (say) fairly and comprehensively tests maths ability
2) The VCE course is difficult, so much so that teachers struggle to cover the curriculum properly
3) Its generally accepted that success in VCE requires a great deal of hard work from the students (and teachers)
4) Doing hundreds and hundreds of questions is great preparation for the exam
5) Society agrees the VCE courses and exams are rigorous, fair, test ability and reward hard work.

No particularly earth shattering insights there – except that this approach has become increasingly different from any other aspects of schooling in the years before VCE. In many schools if you tried teaching Year 8 subjects the same way (difficult, lots of questions etc)  there’d be a revolt  (most likely from the teachers). Teachers and schools hold a disconnect – VCE requires hard work, lots of study, lots of questions, but earlier years do not. Before VCE you can apparently learn from group work, projects, discovery learning, self directed learning, with guides at the side while sitting in beanbags. But not a single school would accept that is a reasonable approach to take with the VCE. If the goal is genuine learning, we know which approach works.

A blog post (whose link I can no longer find – HT to whoever can point me in the right direction) written by a maths HoD I read recently suggested schools get their hands on old textbooks because these have short explanations followed by lots of questions. Modern texts have long winded explanations, acres of white space, with few questions. My recent experience bears this out.

Of course the argument would be that the pre-VCE approach results in “real” learning, and that the VCE approach is rote learning. The first point has been shown to be false (yes, simply a link is a cop-out) and I’ll leave the rote learning canard for another day.

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