‘Part of the strategy’: Why HSC students should attempt harder courses

Students who take advanced maths and English and their extensions are more likely to finish in the top two HSC bands than those who take a less challenging version of those subjects, further disproving the myth that students will do better if they choose easier options.

Many schools are now actively encouraging students to take harder subjects where possible and to choose the extension options, which the schools’ own analyses show can lift the students’ performance across both the foundation subject and the extension unit.

A Herald analysis of HSC data from 2020 found almost 93 per cent of the students who took HSC English extension 1 finished with an E3 or E4 last year, as did 84 per cent of those who took maths extension 1 and 97 per cent of those who took music extension 1.

It also showed more than half of students who sat advanced English and maths finished in the top two bands. However, fewer than 12 per cent of English standard students and just 25 per cent of maths standard students finished in the top two bands.

The analysis comes as the NSW Education Standards Authority said last year’s seven weeks of remote learning did not have an impact on the final HSC results, with the same proportions of students falling into each of the six band categories as previous years.

In 2020, 10 per cent of HSC course results were in the top band, about 40 per cent were in the two top bands, and about 70 per cent were in the top three bands. Results across all six bands were consistent with previous years.

Creative arts subjects such as music – where almost 97 per cent finished in the top two bands in music extension 1 – visual arts (65 per cent), dance (58) and textiles and design (57) also had high numbers of students finishing in the top two bands.

Music is considered by many to be an anomaly, as many of those students have had outside music tuition for many years and are part of extra-curricular bands and orchestras.

Other subjects in which more than half of candidates finished in the top two bands were the relatively new science extension 1 (74 per cent), history extension 1 (76), and economics (51), maths advanced (53) and English advanced (63).

HSC students’ results are sorted into bands according to their performance against fixed achievement standards, rather than plotted along a bell curve like the Victorian Certificate of Education. In the two-unit subjects there are six bands, in extension subjects there are four.

A top band in one subject is not equivalent to another, and has no impact on the ATAR, as that is based on results that have not yet been sorted into bands. The number of students in the top bands also reflects the ability of the students studying the courses, as stronger students are more likely to opt for harder subjects.

Angela Thomas, the director of teaching and learning at Santa Sabina College, said the school encourages students to do as rigorous a course as they can possibly do.

“They do better at it,” she said. “The positive success is well documented over time, both for high- and middle-ability students. [We tell them] you should start in the advanced course, and start in the extension course.

“In the extension courses, not only your high but also your middle-ability students do very well.” The impact on their corresponding 2 unit course is substantial. If you track them with their similar peers who don’t do extension, they do better.

“For something like maths, if you keep extension 1 maths for a long time, it’s impacting positively on two unit. Even if they drop it, two unit feels easy.”

Craig Petersen, the head of the Secondary Principals Councils, agrees that extension studies lift students’ performances in two-unit subjects as well.

“The more time you spend on any topic, the better you’re going to be at it. If I’m doing another couple of hours a week, I’m getting the core concepts, skills and understandings reinforced. I’m sure for some schools it’s part of the [HSC] strategy.”

However Kim Paino, marketing manager for the University Admissions Centre, warned that top HSC bands did not guarantee a good Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR).

“Bands make no difference to ATAR,” she said. “To get them into performance bands, the marks have been massaged by [the NSW Education Standards Authority] – they have to conform to the descriptors of the performance. We don’t really care about performance, we care about position [compared with other students].”

Fewer students (40 per cent) finish in the top two bands for physics than for visual arts (65 per cent), but physics has a higher scaled mean. One-third of students with an ATAR of between 99 and 99.95 last year studied physics.

In the HSC last year, the raw mean of physics was 37.2, which was scaled to 30.9. The raw mean of visual arts was 40.7, which was scaled to 21.9.

“You can offset the fact that you might have a lower position in that course because you have a higher scaled mean,” Ms Paino said.

The scaled mean is calculated based on the achievement of the students sitting a particular subject in their other subjects. So if a student has a lower position in a subject dominated by strong students, they may end up with a better scaled mark than a student who did well in a subject dominated by weaker students.

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