- Beyond the school gate
- Improving student learning
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- What's real in a virtual world?
- Careers and transition
- Curriculum for the 21st century
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The big picture - in education
The case for an ACE
In 2005, the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) was commissioned to investigate and reporton models and implementation arrangements for an Australian Certificate of Education (ACE) for the final years of secondary school. The investigation revealed significant differences in senior secondary arrangements across Australia. It also found widespread support for greater national consistency and more comparable student results. Geoff Masters reports.
The desirability of greater national consistency in senior secondary arrangements was discussed by the Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs (MCEETYA) in July 2003. The following year, the Australian Government canvassed the idea of a nationally consistent Australian Certificate of Education (ACE) for the senior years of school and indicated its intention to work with state and territory Ministers to begin implementing an ACE.
In May 2005, the Department of Education, Science and Training (DEST) commissioned ACER to investigate and report on models and implementation arrangements for an ACE. Our report was delivered in December.
Our investigation included a desk review of existing and planned senior secondary curriculum and assessment arrangements. Currently, Australia offers nine separate senior certificates through eight awarding bodies. Each of the six states and two territories provides a senior secondary qualification and the Victorian Certificate of Applied Learning is available for students planning to undertake apprenticeships, study at TAFE or enter employment directly from school. A tenth certificate, the International Baccalaureate Diploma, is offered in a number of schools across various regions.
|ACT||ACT Year 12 Certificate|
|NSW||Higher School Certificate|
|NT||Northern Territory Certificate of Education|
|SA||The South Australian Certificate of Education|
|TAS||Tasmanian Certificate of Education|
|VIC||Victorian Certificate of Education|
|Victorian Certificate of Applied Learning|
|WA||Western Australian Certificate of Education|
The nine senior certificates currently awarded.
Most state/territory certificates have evolved over many years, usually from a set of final-year subject examinations conducted for university entrance. Current arrangements are the result of locally negotiated ‘settlements’ and reflect different state/territory histories, educational philosophies, local schools of thought, and the influence of particular individuals and committees in each jurisdiction.
The authorities awarding the nine senior certificates vary enormously in size and have vastly different resources at their disposal. The New South Wales Board of Studies (which has significant responsibilities in addition to the Higher School Certificate) has an annual budget of $94 million; the Tasmanian Qualifications Authority has a budget less than $3 million. Some authorities are able to develop and maintain detailed syllabuses and annual examinations in dozens of subjects; others have no option but to leave curriculum development and student assessment in the hands of schools.
These historical arrangements have produced considerable divergence across Australia in such matters as the minimum requirements for the award of senior certificates, the level of detail provided in syllabuses and curriculum frameworks, and approaches to assessing and reporting student achievement. There is now a bewildering variety of accompanying terminology. Different terms sometimes convey subtle differences in approach or intentions but often they do not. And the use of the same term (e.g. English) sometimes obscures important differences.
Students living in some parts of Australia study centrally specified syllabuses. For example, students taking Biology in NSW complete a core consisting of three 30-hour modules (Maintaining a Balance, Blueprint for Life, Search for Better Health) plus a 30-hour option (selected from Communication, Biotechnology, Genetics, the Human Story and Biochemistry). Students are required to undertake at least 35 hours of practical activities during Year 12 and to complete at least one open-ended investigation.
In contrast, teachers in the ACT are given a ‘Course Framework’ as a basis for developing their own Biology courses. This framework identifies key content, concepts and processes and requires teachers to use a mix of experimental investigation reports, assignments and tests in the assessment of student learning. No course structure is provided and there is no external assessment.
Our investigation included national consultations with stakeholders. A widely held view among participants in our consultations was that, regardless of where they live in Australia, students in the senior secondary school should have similar opportunities to engage with the fundamental knowledge, principles and ideas that make up school subjects. There was general agreement that students in different states and territories taking particular subjects—such as Advanced Mathematics or Chemistry—should be able to engage with those subjects in similar depth and with similar academic rigour. To date, there has been very little analysis of what students are taught in different jurisdictions and even fewer attempts to identify essential curriculum content.
There is also very little information about how standards compare across Australia. Part of the reason for this is that there is no way of comparing performances in a subject such as Accounting across state boundaries. A mark of 85 in one state does not necessarily represent the same level of achievement as a mark of 85 in another. While some states report results as marks out of 100, others provide marks out of 50, and still others report in terms of a small number of achievements levels. Currently, there is no way of comparing a ‘Band 6’ performance in New South Wales with a ‘Very High Achievement’ in Queensland or a mark of 40/50 in Victoria. Some employers told us that they find these differences confusing.
For students wishing to enter university, an attempt is made to provide nationally comparable tertiary entrance ranks (ENTER scores). But the process used to do this makes the assumption that students in each state/territory have the same overall distribution of achievement: a necessary but dubious assumption in the light of other evidence about interstate differences. Some university selection officers now believe that students from some states are less well prepared than their ENTER scores suggest.
Commonalities in state/territory arrangements provide further support for a national approach. At present, there is considerable duplication of effort across Australia. For a subject such as Physics, seven authorities develop seven different syllabuses/curriculum frameworks and their associated examinations/assessment procedures for essentially the same group of (tertiary bound) students. In community language subjects with small candidatures, jurisdictions already collaborate to make more efficient use of scarce resources, raising the question of whether a similar sharing of effort and materials might be possible in a subject such as Physics.
Throughout Australia, common challenges are being addressed in the senior secondary school. These include meeting the needs of the more diverse group of students now participating in this phase of schooling; providing a broader range of curriculum offerings; facilitating pathways between school, training, higher education and work; and ensuring that all young people have the skills required for life and work beyond school. Some of these challenges may benefit from increased national collaboration.
Is there a case for an ACE? Our investigation highlighted the extent of interstate differences, inconsistencies and duplication in senior secondary arrangements. These differences do not reflect differences in student needs. Any move towards an Australian Certificate of Education must recognise and build on the strengths of existing state/territory arrangements and must enable experimentation and innovation to meet local needs. At the same time, greater national consistency in expectations and standards, improved comparability and reduced duplication are likely to benefit all Australian students.
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