How fair is the award system for year 12 students in Australian schools? One letter to our New Zealand editor got us thinking here at School News Australia. Our sister publication, School News, New Zealand received an impassioned letter to the editor last week from Filip Vachuda (‘almost dux of his school’), who says more weight should be given to academic subjects. He said that while he struggled under the rigours of physics and Calculus, the winning dux avoided all academia, instead opting for subjects like media and drama.
High school graduate, Filip Vachuda complaints were met with a stern caution about respect from his principal. Some schools in NZ, such as King’s College in Auckland using scaling to account for the difficulty level of courses. How do schools manage this in Australia? A quick survey brought up considerable variety. School News would be interested in reader comment on this! What is the fairest way to evaluate for ‘dux of the school’ in an Australian context?
Letter to the (NZ) editor: In defence of academic subjects
I, Filip Vachuda, won Proxime Accessit this year at an NCEA school in Central Auckland.
Not winning the Dux award, I suppose, was not exactly something I cared much about at face value. After all, the prize would only result in a small extra sum of payment, as well as me getting my name put up in the hall for bored kids at assemblies to emptily glance at. No, the fact that I had lost, having gone through school to the best of my ability, was nothing to be ashamed of or regret.
But upon being beaten, I could not help but notice a somewhat sobering fact. I had loaded my timetable with the most difficult courses my school offered, including Physics, Calculus, and doing Level 3 English a year early, passing a Scholarship exam in Year 12. Yet it was my competitor, who had undertaken a curriculum completely free of Math, Science or, indeed, Scholarship exams or extra subjects, and instead filled with less academic subjects such as Drama and Media, who ended up beating me. Our quantity and quality of credits attained, all subjects being equal, had minimal differences between them. In the end, though, my tiny credit deficit was the only thing that mattered.
And so, having experienced this, I began to wonder: why did my school not take into account my more demanding academic curriculum? Was it even appropriate to say that certain subjects or pathways are more academically rigorous than others?
Well, whether or not to construct subject hierarchies is, as with infinitely many topics, an issue of utmost subjectivity. Nevertheless, in asking a variety of people in my school’s senior management about their perspectives on the situation, which was invaluable in trying to best understand such a subjective matter, the principal still found time to reprimand me for being ‘disrespectful’ in doing so, and pointed out to me that the concept of subject difficulty is merely an ’artificial construct’. Apparently, such an attitude and awards format was ‘consistent’ among the vast majority of NCEA schools. So, it was ‘nuff said’ on that matter.
What I did manage to discover in the end, though, before that untimely shutdown, is that hierarchies of classes are by no means unprecedented, in fact, quite the contrary. Schools in the United States, among others, have ‘weighted’ grade point averages, which take into account the difficulty of the classes you take. Rigor of coursework is a standard component that colleges always look at when admitting prospective students, and it is thus made clear in their academic records. Some New Zealand schools such as King’s College and Auckland Grammar, who employ systems outside NCEA, do in fact also weight their courses, at least in selecting their school’s top academic achievers.
But the majority of New Zealand schools - specifically those under the NCEA system, have no such provisions. And I had initially thought, upon almost deciding to spark ‘Dux Gate’, that my school had had its priorities all wrong (even, for a brief moment, that the recipient had been ‘nepotistically’ favoured!). In actuality, though, looking back, none of this was really the principal’s or school’s fault at all. In fact, the school was only giving Dux to the person who was seen as the most successful within the NCEA and university acceptance framework. A framework which rewards all achievement ruthlessly equally, no matter if in Calculus or Printmaking or Media or Home Economics, and ensures that the vast majority of subjects are university-approved (all four above are), giving them the same weight. Doing this, though, makes perfect sense- in all New Zealand universities barring the University of Auckland, there is no distinction made between subjects studied at high school, as long as the fit into the wide net of ‘University Approved’, and there are not even any required high school subjects for any courses anywhere (these statements, notably, do exclude Engineering courses, but that’s it). All it ostensibly takes to get into most programmes nationwide is to study something, anything, and study it to a high standard - and so that ends up being what schools value.
And yes, it is easy to see why the NZQA has adopted this approach. Everyone has different strengths and skillsets, and this is what makes the world complete. Some can solve complex mathematical equations, become experts at understanding how the human body works or write stunning academic essays, while some are more talented at acting, painting, or building things. And of course, if you wanted to study these things further at university, these subjects must definitely be University Approved.
But saying that acting, painting or building things is somehow just as academic as Physics, English, History or Calculus is completely missing the mark. You can be completely illiterate and innumerate, yet still be an outstanding painter or actor - and excel in the multitude of NCEA standards that require only that. Granted, there are exceptions and always will be, but for the vast majority of students, quantitative, academic subjects such as math, science or even history are considered tougher than more artistic or vocational ones. And such a claim is evident in countries like the UK, for example, where exams aren’t graded on a curve like they are here, and achievement gaps thus become clearly apparent. It doesn’t take a statistician to notice that math and science students, for example, due to the difficulty of exams, regularly underperform against those in arts subjects. The notion that subject difficulty is an ‘artificial construct’ does not seem to hold true at all.
Equally as importantly, not only are there objectively more difficult subjects than others, but chances are that STEM subjects, or those considered most difficult, will be the ones that get you furthest in life. In one example, the five highest-paying college majors in the US were all some form of engineering or science, while the lowest-paying were all arts-based subjects- early childhood education, psychology, theology and the like. In New Zealand, performing arts remains the lowest-paid college degree. There is a clear disparity, yet again, between science and classically academic non-science subjects (such as Law or Commerce) and subjects involving Arts, or vocational skills not even taught at universities.
So, knowing this, in society, it is great that we acknowledge everyone’s potential and reward them for it, but should we not at least, in determining our top academic performers, recognize that certain pathways are more challenging and far more likely to actually be rewarding in the real world? NCEA’s system, which seems to have rubbed off on to universities, does not encourage or even really allow for that to be the case. And I think that is a grave mistake. We should be first and foremost encouraging our young people to embark on the most fulfilling, but also fruitful, careers possible for them, and appreciate when they go that extra mile to attain those goals.
One other qualm I have is that, yet again, even though I had taken it upon myself to study six Level 3 subjects, one of them a full year early, only five were to be counted in the awarding of Dux and my University Grade Point Average. If all six had been counted, I would have had a higher result and received Dux, but again, according to the institutionalized criteria New Zealand universities, only one’s best five are taken into account. This, on the other hand, is a glaring omission of the value of breadth and exceeding what is required of you. In New Zealand, we already study relatively few subjects at high school level compared to the rest of the world. Why is it appropriate to outright ignore some of what students have achieved, narrowing our scope down even further? Similarly, my English Scholarship, which I had earned, as with credits, upon sitting and passing a government-sanctioned exam, was not considered in the Dux ranking at all, being dismissed as an ‘award’ and not a ‘qualification’. And, most perplexedly, at that same awards ceremony, a Year 12 girl who took it upon herself to take all Level 3 subjects, yet still performed to an exceedingly high standard, lost the Year 12 Merit Cup to someone who had a marginally higher Grade Point Average, but had all his credits at Level 2 - a full curriculum level lower than what the girl had had.
It seemed in these cases, and likely in the countless other NCEA schools that have ‘consistent’ systems, that when students do choose to go above and beyond what is required of them to get into university, it is being treated as if it was all for nought. And while yes, you could argue it wouldn’t mean much in terms of university admissions, the fact that it does not should not mean that those accomplishments are any less impressive or valuable to one’s intellectual growth. Again, we must be careful that we are not failing our next generation by teaching them to only value the bare minimum criteria for success (what happened to ’the sky’s the limit’?), which does nobody any favors in terms of attitudes towards achievement in any pursuit, academic or otherwise. It almost seems like we don’t have any faith in our education system and curriculum, if we are encouraging students to invest as little effort into it as necessary, aiming towards this ‘bare minimum’. But that’s touching on a whole another topic.
Now, you can agree or disagree with this as much as you’d like. You may brand me as ‘traditionalist’, or even as racist or sexist. There will always be those who point out, after all, that physics, mathematics or history tend to be, still, overwhelmingly the domain of European and Asian males. You might say, who am I to value those subjects, or any accomplishments, for that matter, over any others? Doesn’t that defeat the purpose of encouraging equality? Well, to me, an academic subject is one that can be constantly improved upon through further study. Many other writers who have formulated a definition have much a similar one. Even if all data supporting differences in difficulty is negated, surely any school that bills its Dux as the ‘top academic achiever’ has a duty to emphasize, well, academic subjects.
You could undoubtedly call me a bad sport or a bitter loser, as well. Though I feel one aspect of good sportsmanship that is almost never mentioned is questioning the basis of a decision when you feel you have been wronged. After all, all it is is trying to deduce what the fairest result would have been.
However, throwing these statements at me would not address anything constructive. What I have found as a result of this exercise is that I cannot assign not only my award, but the educational system, any legitimacy. The young woman who beat me was spectacular at that which she did. She rightfully deserved all of her individual prizes in her subject areas. But I cannot accept that someone who completely forgoes Math and Science at the expense of non-academic subjects wins the award for the best, all-round, academic achiever. There are no benchmarks in NCEA beyond achievement at whatever it is you wish to do- it is so reluctant to assign greater value to certain courses or endeavors, that performing an entire curriculum level above your competition, as I have witnessed with that girl from Year 12, has no weight at all in determining relative success.
As I see it, the “equality above all else” culture of NCEA seems to have really given rise to a baffling educational and societal shift in priorities. We should not give academic prizes to those who do ‘their best’ in easier subject areas, while giving into NCEA’s temptation to value all achievement equally. It’s a nice gesture, but it’s just unrealistic. Just because certain subjects offering wider opportunities breeds unequal outcomes in life does not mean that all needs to be turned on its head. The world can never be an absolutely equal place, and it’s time that this egalitarian fetish that plagues the New Zealand education system was eliminated.
Until then, I shall advise my sister, who has just finished Year 11 with the Girls’ Merit Cup under her belt, to start loading up on her Photography, P.E. and Polynesian Dance if she wishes to continue being a top scholar.