Earlier this month, Victorian Education Minister James Merlino announced that every Victorian VCE student will now be individually assessed, with any adverse impacts from COVID-19 reflected in their ATAR ranking.
Merlino said the “extraordinary change” will factor in school closures, long absences, significant increases in family responsibilities and mental health issues during the pandemic.
However, Berwick Lodge Primary School principal, Henry Grossek – prominent Victorian school leader with more than 50 years of experience in the profession – has strong doubts that the initiative will be fair and equitable.
“The Victorian Government’s approach to ensuring fairness and equity for VCE students’ results in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, well-meaning as it undoubtedly is, deserves close scrutiny,” Grossek told The Educator.
“Surprisingly, there has been less than usual commentary on the Minister for Education, James Merlino’s announcement the impact of COVID-19 on VCE results will be factored in”.
Grossek said several fairness and equity issues spring to mind.
“One is teacher judgement across three sectors with 50,000 students – and by the way, these sectors don't really speak to each other,” he said.
“It is important to remember that not only are the students in competition with each other for places in tertiary institutions, but so also are the sectors and indeed individual schools in terms of prestige and enrolments”.
Also high on the list, said Grossek, is the challenge facing all VCE teachers – having to anticipate what they think will have been the impact of the pandemic on each and every student individually.
“There is absolutely no historical precedent upon which teachers can draw for any reliable guidance. It is a can of worms if ever there was one,” he said.
“For one thing, some teachers would have taught some of these students for just one term. Now those teachers will have to make a prediction on how COVID-19 has impacted their students in a variety of ways - anxiety, support at home, access to and level of resources, etc”.
Another issue of significance, says Grossek, is that there are likely to be many subjective variables in terms of quantifying the impact on a student’s ATAR score.
“Most importantly, no-one has created, nor attempted to do so I daresay, an algorithm that can take this into account,” he said.
“Teachers are well placed to recognise that external factors do impact on student results. That’s not in question, but in this circumstance? The efficacy of the exercise has to have a huge question mark hanging over it”.
Can the process be free of fudging?
Grossek said he is concerned from past experience that the changes will lead to “fudging and dishonesty” by parents and schools.
“There is the perennial question of integrity with high stakes testing muddying the water,” he said.
“Sadly, the jury is no longer out on this – more than a few examples exist over the years, of fudging and dishonesty”.
Grossek said the process itself is also open to debate.
“There are a number of assumptions that would have to presumably be built into the process,” Grossek said.
“There is the task of moderating the teacher judgements on the impact of COVID-19 on each of about 50,000 students across three sectors and coming from varying socio-economic backgrounds. This will invariably rely on historical data”.
Grossek said that while this may well have some validity, it is also at risk of downplaying valid teacher judgements and does not sit well with historical patterns of student achievement.
“In short, 2020 will most likely be a year in which those students whose results in other years could be described ‘surprising’ will be few and far between - similarly so across sectors and between schools,” he said.
“How fair and equitable then, in a highly competitive VCE environment, is that?”
Grossek said a particular challenge that exists in attempting to moderate the impact of COVID-19 systemically is to predict with near certainty the actual influence of COVID-19 on students results from such a diverse set of backgrounds.
“Does its impact correlate with that of historical factors or is it significantly different, given the profoundly unique impact of COVID-19 societally? We have no real way of knowing that,” he said.
Minister in an ‘invidious position’
Grossek said the announcement of VCE changes amount to somewhat of a catch-22 for Minister Merlino, pointing out that many parents will almost certainly feel that their child has been disadvantaged by the scheme.
“On the one hand. If [Minister Merlino] does nothing, there are many who will say 'my child was affected, and this wasn't taken sufficiently into account'”, he said.
“On the other, by proactively taking action as he has, the quality of that decision, as distinct from the intention, is subject to valid criticism”.
Grossek said it’s “nigh on impossible” to see that 2020 will be a year in which the gap between the VCE results of children from disadvantaged communities and those of the advantaged will in any way be reduced.
“That’s not a legacy of COVID-19 on our education system that should sit well with any of us”.