When each mark counts

Sep 16, 2023
Exploring the divide in HSC disability provisions and the quest for a more equitable education system. Source: Getty Images.

I did the Higher School Certificate (HSC) in 1968, the year after it was introduced as the credential awarded to NSW school students when they have successfully completed their primary and secondary education and satisfied all course requirements (including the end of course examinations). The HSC is conducted by the Board of Senior School Studies and is externally set and marked. It is intended to be a true measure of student ability, knowledge, and skills, but while that may have once been so, it is far less likely today.

Over the past four decades, the educational landscape in New South Wales has dramatically changed. The vast majority of children used to attend their local primary and high schools, while today many children attend out-of-area schools instead, travelling (often long distances) across the metropolitan area of Sydney to attend private (independent or faith-based) schools. Parents who can afford to pay the fees charged are eager to enrol their children in generously resourced private schools. After all, under-funded government schools cannot compete with the enhanced learning opportunities offered by their private counterparts. In private schools, the class sizes are smaller, learning spaces are attractive and facilities are modern. What makes them all the more attractive to parents is that while government schools must (and do) enrol all comers, private schools can choose not to enrol (or retain) hard-to-teach and/or disruptive students.

In New South Wales then, the most advantaged and easy-to-teach students are now concentrated in fee charging private schools, while the most disadvantaged and hard-to-teach are concentrated in under- resourced government schools. Another aspect of this divide is that a whopping 72 per cent of all school students with disability attend government schools. These students, some of whom are gifted and talented, require either low-intensity or high intensity learning support.

Unsurprisingly. the polarisation of education in NSW plays out in student outcomes. The achievement gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students is large, the equivalent to three years of schooling. Bearing this in mind, and the high proportion of disadvantaged and/or disabled students in government schools, it is disturbing to find that our most advantaged students, those attending expensive private schools, are the ones most likely to access disability provisions during HSC examinations.

Disability provisions in the HSC are special arrangements made to help students who may otherwise find it difficult to show what they know and can do in an examination. These provisions may include Braille or large print examination papers (for visually impaired students), the use of a reader (for those have low reading ability), the use of a scribe (for those whose writing is ineligible, or have a hand injury), stand and stretch breaks (for those with chronic pain or a concentration disability), extra time (for slow writers) and extra rests breaks (for students with low stamina) and so on. In addition, between 2011 and 2017, the numbers of student applying for disability provisions for mental reasons jumped fourfold from one thousand to four thousand.

A comparison of disability provisions accessed by our most advantaged schools and our most disadvantaged paints a stark picture. First, we’ll take a look at a couple of our most advantaged schools. Last year, the Emanuel School at Randwick had 90 HSC students, 39 of whom claimed disability provisions. 75 per cent of the Emanuel students belong in the top quarter of socio-educational advantage (SEA). No Emanuel students belong in the lowest quarter of SEA. At the Emanuel School, then, 43 per cent or getting close to half of their HSC candidates, sat for their examinations with modified conditions to accommodate their ‘disabilities’. Note here again that government schools enrol 72 per cent of all students with a disability. The Emanuel School is not a government school.

The Ascham School is not a government school either. Like the Emanuel School, Ascham is unlikely to enrol a significant number (if any) of disabled students. Nevertheless, last year, 29 of its 114 HSC students sat their examinations supported with disability provisions. 82 per cent of Ascham students are the top quarter of SEA and 1 per cent are from the bottom (possibly a scholarship student). It is hard for me to believe that 25.4 per cent (over a quarter) of Ascham girls are disabled. At the other end of the scale, there is Fairfield High School where 75% of the student cohort are from the bottom quarter of SEA and 2 per cent from the top. Fairfield High School had 144 HSC candidates last year and 5 of them were supported with HSC disability provisions. Despite the fact that Fairfield High School most certainly has many more students disadvantaged by disability, less than 4 (3.47 per cent) in every 100 of its HSC students accessed modified examination conditions.

Then there is Chester Hill High School where 11 of the 159 HSC candidates were granted disability provisions, which equates to almost (6.9 per cent) – a far cry from the double digit ‘disabled’ cohorts sitting the HSC at our most advantaged schools. At Chester Hill High School, 66 per cent of students are in the lowest quarter of SEA and 2 per cent in the top. These statistics clearly show that those students who are most likely to need HSC disability provisions are least likely to have them while those least likely have them aplenty.

This distorted distribution of disability provisions is not only unfair, but also it reduces the reliability of the HSC as a measure of what students can do. If the HSC is to be a reliable credential for future employment or further study, then it must be a standardised test. In other words, it must be administered and scored in a consistent or standard manner and clearly that is not happening – it’s all different strokes for different folks (especially for those who already advantaged).

Where two students achieve the same HSC result (or ATAR – Australian Tertiary Admission Rank), but one sat their examinations under modified conditions, are their results truly equal? Disability provisions can boost a student to achieve a better result (or ATAR) and displace another (unsupported) student from a coveted place in a university course. For that matter, employers are not looking to hire employees who require extra time or extra rest breaks to complete their work.

Employers want to know what applicants are actually capable of doing by themselves. Here’s my take on HSC disability provisions, then. Except in obvious cases of physical disability, I don’t think disability provisions are warranted or fair. Is it time to get back to where we started or are our cotton wool grandkids much less capable than we were?



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