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ENTER the Dragon

December 21, 2009 – 3:32 pm3 Comments

how-i-got-into-collegeBy David Werdiger

It’s that time of year again. Not Chanukah; not Christmas; not New Year; but VCE results time. That time of the year when the Jewish schools are able to quantify their success and be judged among the top schools in the state.

Let me declare my specific interest this year. Our oldest child has just completed his VCE, and this has been a very new experience for my wife and me (yeah, and for him too). He didn’t get a stratospheric ENTER score that puts him in the top fraction of a percent of students in the state. While he did work very hard over a sustained two-year period, he didn’t put his life on hold either. We are pleased with both the approach he took to VCE, and with the result he obtained. Would the opinion I express here be different if my child was among the elite students? I don’t know. I hope not.

The whole school ranking thing leaves me wondering just a little. Mount Scopus were number one this year, with a spectacular performance from a large number of students. Interestingly, the principal of MacRobertson High, the previous number one, expressed relief at their drop to third, calling the rank an “albatross around our neck”.

Back in the olden days, when I completed what was then known as the HSC (Higher School Certificate), it was the very first year that internal assessment was introduced. Rather than have students’ entire assessment come down to a single three-hour exam, it was felt that having some assessment done by the school, and across the year, would reduce the pressure on students, and also assess subjects in a more appropriate and equitable manner.

Over nearly twenty years, what has this evolved into? A system that maintains sustained pressure on students for two years, to the point where psychologists make a good living teaching them how to cope, and the secondary industry of private tutors is thriving. A system that places pressure on top performing schools (and therefore their students) to maintain their ranking. A system that not only still judges students by a single number, but has taken the number from an aggregate exam score to a ranking, thus sending the message that education is a competition.

The top-ranked schools have embraced this, and have learnt to work the system so as to produce students that do well. But are these schools providing a good education for their students? Are they equipping them with the tools to live productive lives? Or have they simply become ENTER factories?

At a presentation at the start of the school year, well-known psychologist Michael Carr-Gregg spoke to parents and students about how to approach the study year. He was full of good advice – things like getting plenty of sleep (was he talking to the students or the parents as well?), what to eat, and how to study most effectively, much of which was backed by research. The most important thing he said was this: “your ENTER score does not define you”.

The system we have now is deeply flawed. Some people might say that it’s all we have, or that we need some way of measuring student performance, and particularly determining who is accepted into the limited number of university places. The students who did extremely well by this measure should be fully congratulated. They worked hard and earned it. They made their parents, their school, and their community proud.

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  • ariel says:

    I feel that there are two big issues with HSC and VCE.

    One is the complete myth that you absolutely have to achieve a score of 99.99 to be considered “intelligent” or a “good product” of the school. I blame parents as much as the community. Students should be taught from the very beginning that they need only do their best, which I equate more or less with achieving the mark they need to get into the degree program of their choice. There is no need to destroy your entire bodily system studying day and night to achieve 99.99 if you only need a mark of 75. Apart from which, it is completely unhealthy. In fact most of the most successful students at school and uni continue to participate in extra-curricular activities during STUVAC and exam periods (sports are and especially good outlet). Students should be encouraged by their parents, but not pressured. When I sat my HSC, my parents were constantly asked “How are you coping?”, to which they replied “Perfectly well, since we’re not sitting the exam. If our child doesn’t get into the course of their choice, it’s their problem”. How right they were to remain calm. (By the way, I did get into the course I wanted).

    The second big issue I see – which is a byproduct of the first issue – is the fashionable hiring of external tutors to supplement school study. If a student is not performing well in a subject, there are two (cheaper) options:

    1. Go and see the teacher after class and ask for assistance. That is their job and most are more than happy to help rather than to be trumped by an external tutor. You pay $20K/yr for an education, so you may as well get the best out of it.

    2. Consider that perhaps this subject is not for you. Consider dropping it for something more suitable to your abilities. Taking a subject just because it will (supposedly) scale you up is completely wrong. You should study what interests you and/or what provides  appropriate knowledge for your tertiary course.

    The HSC/VCE is not the be all and end all of life (in fact it’s quite meaningless in the scheme of things) and students should not feel pressured to perform beyond their abilities.

  • Almoni says:

    The VCE industry, and the way that private schools, including Jewish schools  have played into middle class fears is a disgrace.   The Aust Jewish News is particularly culpable in this, but then, there’s nothing like advertising revenue from the private schools.
    With few exceptions, our life choices, chances, and opportunities are NOT determined by a school exam.  The obsession with 99.95, and shamefully the parading of success by private (including Jewish schools) at getting such marks is a fraud, because, kids who aren’t doing well are streamed out /moved out of the schools.  And in fact, many kids who seem to 0 do so well, because they have been coddled, struggle in higher education and drop out.  It’s likely that kids will have at least 9 or 10 or more jobs and a variety of career paths before they retire–and that VCE mark isn’t going to necessarily privilege their life.
    I too have a highly intelligent son, in the 95% range in a variety of tests, but formal schooling has not been for him. He is taking a break, meeting other kids, working. No doubt he will get back into the system and because of his maturity, do well.  Yet we, as a family, are stigmatized for not being ‘succesful’, as if final success is measured at the age of 17 or 18.
    It depresses and infuriates me that the lowest common denominator for ‘success’ — actually, shall be say, the worst sort of materialist idol workship, has entered into the privileged Jewish  and private schools –a dedication to personal well-being alone, and a false measure of sucesss through exams, rather then success being seen as the development of a rounded & ethical adult who can make intelligent choices.
    But try and convince parents, and particularly the school industry, and the advertising and status industry that life is something else. Forget it.  Industry interests have gouging parents’ worst worries at heart.
    It’s a truly sorry state of affairs.
    I’m pleased you had the guts to write this David. I prefer to use my pseudonym only because of the whispers we get otherwise.

  • watcher says:

    For another way of looking at this see a parent’s guest post on AJNWATCH

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