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Covid-19 has opened up new disparities between students, as some states consider narrowing the scope of final-year exams in response. By Rick Morton.

Last exams: Reality of year 12 in lockdown

While the class of 2020 will graduate, their finish line looks like no other year in modern memory.

And teachers across Australia, faced with preparing year 12 students for the vagaries of assessments and examinations in the middle of a deadly pandemic, know their students will absorb these conditions unequally.

It’s no secret the system is already unfair for reasons of poverty and family violence, school resources, health and access. The end-of-year scores and certificates that open up the world of university, trades and employment are weighted to try to iron out these inequalities, but the Covid-19 pandemic has created new disparities and reinforced old problems.

Harry, a senior high-school teacher and head of department at a Catholic independent school in Queensland, says the ground has shifted so much already in just weeks.

“Just as this kicked off, a father told one of our teachers that both parents had lost their jobs and they were canning the internet because they couldn’t afford it,” he says.

“This was just as we were moving to remote learning. For a lot of kids, the only internet-enabled device they have is their mobile phone – and that is just not conducive to learning.”

Harry estimates that, at his school, about 10 per cent of students have a challenging home environment because of financial distress or domestic violence. He has the technology to reach them – the school invested in it years ago – but what about the families and their capacity to meet the school halfway?

“The state schools are going to have this much, much harder,” he says.

In Western Sydney, a state high-school teacher in a low socioeconomic catchment tells The Saturday Paper that – in addition to her students struggling with the psychological pressure – the school is just not equipped to handle remote learning.

“I watched independent schools switch over almost immediately to fully configured online learning and even they struggled,” she says.

“We didn’t have any of that ready to go. We’ve got amazing staff here and we work so hard for the kids, but we were already stretched when times were good.”

In an effort to address these problems, state governments in New South Wales and Victoria have lent thousands of laptops and wi-fi devices to students who did not have access at home. But it’s a Band-Aid that relies on students to report their disadvantage to their school, which is never an easy ask. Moreover, some teachers report their students are yet to receive these vital supplies, weeks into the lockdown.

On Tuesday, the NSW government announced that students will begin returning to schools one day a week for regular face-to-face learning from May 11, the third week of term 2. Schools will remain open for any student who cannot stay home, as has been the case since the Covid-19 outbreak began.

In NSW, as in Queensland and Western Australia, authorities are “strongly encouraging” year 12 students to attend classes if they can. It’s an implicit recognition that the high-stakes, end-of-school year cannot be delivered as effectively from home.

Harry’s school is using video-conferencing software to deliver classes.

“I’m using it to teach them but also getting my students to record their own screens and show me what they are doing,” he says.

“At the moment, only about 50 per cent of them are actually doing that.”

He also uses Microsoft’s OneNote, which he says has made collaborative learning easier, but it was a huge change – one that took students and staff years to get used to.

“It syncs up on student devices and allows me to use tabs to keep everything organised; honestly it has been a game changer,” he says.

“But I know Education Queensland kept OneNote locked until about a year ago, so teachers could not use it. It took us four years to adopt, so we got really lucky that we had that head start.”

Another option for schools is using Zoom, which Belinda* has been using for her year 12 students at a Sydney independent school.

“I’ve been hearing from other teachers in the public system that they are not allowed to use it because of security concerns,” she says.

Even with greater allowances for technology, Belinda says, moving to a remote model has made teaching, a tough profession in normal circumstances, all the harder.

“I’m doing a lot more marking now than ever before because I can’t just walk around a room and check student work,” she says.

“They are sending me Google Docs with their answers during class so I can make sure they understand what we are learning. But, you know, I’m also a firm believer in the direct instruction model, walking them through the concepts. You can’t do that from a worksheet.”

Harry says one thing has become clear in recent weeks – the gap between high-achieving students and low-achieving students has been widening during the pandemic.

“There is a real sense that the high-achieving kids are smashing it, and the others are falling further behind,” he says.

“And why are they high-achieving kids in the first place? Because they have an aptitude, and a home life that encourages learning or allows it. And the low-achieving kids, they are already disadvantaged for the opposite reasons.”

Grading students has always been a matter of weighting these advantages and disadvantages together with curriculum expectations, but the new considerations have made the task more complex than ever.

Earlier this month, NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA) chair Peter Shergold confirmed to administrators and students in an update that there will be a Higher School Certificate (HSC) in NSW this year.

“No ifs, no buts,” Shergold said in the video message.

“And, progressively, we will work through the challenges of delivering that HSC.”

But so far, Victoria is the only state to have announced detailed plans for end-of-year examinations and assessments, moving the key General Achievement Test (GAT) from June to October or November and pushing year-end examinations into December.

The Victorian government has also asked universities to delay the start of next year’s intake to account for the shifting time lines.

The Saturday Paper can reveal both WA and Queensland are seriously considering a plan to narrow the scope of final-year exams by telling students which specific areas will be covered.

For example, in Queensland, students usually know that an exam will cover some broad topic areas, but under this new approach, they will be given an actual list to better focus their study.

Queensland’s Education minister, Grace Grace, concedes this is a “particularly anxious time” for final-year students.

“We want to ensure that no senior secondary student is disadvantaged because of this unprecedented crisis,” she says.

“What we are trying to do right now is ensure any future decisions will mean equitable outcomes for all senior secondary students as they complete their schooling.”

But some decisions being made are causing concern.

The Queensland Curriculum and Assessment Authority (QCAA) has already effectively axed one of four scheduled assessments in the final year of school. In most cases, this will be the third assessment of the year; however, different subjects and different schools will have flexibility to choose a different test to cut instead.

QCAA says it will provide information about the adjusted method for calculating final subject results later this term.

This poses problems, too, according to Harry.

“Separate to the university ranking, students will require a total of 20 points to contribute to their QCE [Queensland Certificate of Education]. Basically, to say they completed year 11 and 12 satisfactorily,” he says.

“Students can effectively earn one point for passing a semester but now we only have one assignment in their last semester – the external examination – instead of two. If they crash and burn and fail on that, they don’t get a point.

“The third assignment has been canned. Losing two points at this stage is a big deal for students and their QCE.”

WA’s Education minister, Sue Ellery, says that at this stage final exams are still scheduled for November.

“We will monitor year 12 attendance during the first three weeks [of term 2] and further consideration may be given to the time lines and structure of examinations later [in the term],” she says.

Kim Paino of the Universities Admissions Centre (UAC), which administers undergraduate offers for NSW and the ACT, told The Saturday Paper that if HSC exams can still happen in NSW then the crucial Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) score can still be calculated “the way we have always done it”.

UAC performs this calculation for NSW and ACT schools, and each state has a similar body.

“What we are really concerned about – and what NESA is really worried about – is this idea that students might just give up now because they think the whole system has gone out the window,” Paino says.

“Already they are having to deal with something that no other year 12 cohort has had to deal with in recent memory. And some schools are better resourced than other schools and within schools some students have access to more resources than others.”

UAC is currently in talks with universities to come up with a way to smooth this disadvantage. The current educational access scheme provides adjustments to a student’s ATAR if they have suffered certain setbacks, such as financial stress or a disrupted home life.

“But that scheme currently says a student has to have lived through that disadvantage for a minimum of six months, and the disruption from Covid-19 might not be that long but still be significant,” she says.

“So, we either need to adjust that scheme or come up with a new one that sits alongside it that gives a boost to a student’s ATAR if they have struggled because of this pandemic.”

Paino says the consensus within the education system is that students will be able to get through this year, despite the intense disruption.

“There is a sort of conservative optimism that everything will be okay,” she says.

“Term 2 is going to be crucial. At the moment, it’s a little bit like ‘watch this space’. We don’t know what this will all look like yet.”

Meanwhile, for students hoping to make up for poor results with a strong final year of school, the fact more universities than ever are now choosing to offer direct admissions is cause for concern.

Both Macquarie University and the Australian National University have announced they will use year 11 results to make early offers to students, effectively bypassing the need for an ATAR.

Universities have always been able to do this, but the loss of lucrative international student revenue during the pandemic has made this a survival tactic as much as anything.

For Belinda’s students, this is a concern.

“Some of them did okay in year 11 but many of them were hoping that this would be their year,” she says.

“I was teaching a Zoom class in the last week of last term when they started getting [unofficial] text messages saying exams might be delayed or they were going to rely on year 11 results, and they were freaked out.

“It is the uncertainty – the not knowing – that has done the most damage.”

* Name has been changed.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 25, 2020 as "Last exams: Reality of year 12 in lockdown".

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Rick Morton is The Saturday Paper’s senior reporter.