Queensland Year 12 students overcome coronavirus chaos to sit for ATAR exams for the first time

More than 37,000 Queensland Year 12 students are embarking on crucial external exams for the first time in the state, rounding off a senior year dominated by coronavirus chaos.

The so-called “guinea pig” cohort will join graduates around the country in receiving an Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) instead of an OP score.

Navigating the new system and its standardised exams has been an added challenge for students already facing the stress and uncertainty of the pandemic.

“I think everyone is a little bit nervous and stressed going into it because there’s a lot of unknowns,” Coomera Anglican College student Kyrra Wilks said.

“You look forward to [Year 12] for a really long time and then obviously with COVID-19, a new system … it was pretty chaotic.”

Griffith University’s Dean of Education, Professor Donna Pendergast, with her Year 12 daughter Kyrra Wilks.(ABC News: Steve Keen)

The class of 2020 was the first full cohort to attend Prep, the first Year Sevens at high school and now the first to graduate with an ATAR during a health crisis.

Queensland Curriculum and Assessment Authority (QCAA) chief executive Chris Rider said he was confident that students were ready for exams.

“I think we’ve done everything we can to prepare the Year 12s for the new system, but it has been difficult because of COVID,” Mr Rider said.

Earlier this year, the QCAA removed a piece of assessment from each subject syllabus to ease pressure on students during the pandemic.

Chris Rider sitting at a desk in an office.
QCAA chief executive Chris Rider says it’s been “difficult” to prepare students for the new system in 2020.(ABC News: Lily Nothling)

“We have 81 subjects that are going through external exams over just over a three-week period,” Mr Rider said.

“You can have confidence that the result you got in one school is exactly the same as the result you would get had you gone to another school.”

It will take 4,000 teachers about four weeks to mark all the test papers online, with results released on December 19.

‘They’re great survivors’

COVID-19 has forced schools to cancel or modify big events and rites of passage for Year 12 students.

Griffith University’s Dean of Education, Professor Donna Pendergast, said that had taken a toll on graduates who missed out on important milestones.

“They’re great survivors.”

With overseas gap years off the cards, Professor Pendergast said university applications were on the rise.

“Universities have changed their entry processes so there have been a lot of early entry offers,” she said.

“That’s given students confidence as they enter into their external exams.”

Ipswich State High School student Mandie Horrocks plays the violin.
Ipswich State High School student Mandie Horrocks says she’s learned to be more independent.(ABC News: Lily Nothling)

Ipswich State High School Student Mandie Horrocks has been studying hard to secure a scholarship to study engineering next year.

“[Learning from home] was challenging because we had to put up with technology issues and malfunctions.

“I just have to have faith in myself and all the work and effort that I’ve put in throughout the year that I’m going to get through it OK.”

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‘Slow death’ of ATAR as school leavers head for jobs ‘cliff’

Digital micro-credentialing and the “slow death” of ATAR are the future of education, according to a new review, but research shows COVID-era school leavers will be worse off.

A new report into school leavers’ transition into work or further study has recommended the ATAR “cannot continue to dominate the education experience”, as the Australian education system adjusts to the longer-term effects of the COVID-19 crisis.

The chancellor of Western Sydney University, Peter Shergold, chaired a review into pathways for senior secondary students, which also found vocational education pathways had traditionally been perceived as “second class”.

“I think ATAR is, in a real sense, distorting our senior secondary education system,” Professor Shergold 7.30 as part of a new series on the education and jobs of Australia in 2025.

“I’m not calling — the panel is not calling — for the execution of ATAR. It’s [a] slow death over the next five years.

“What are we doing about the 70 per cent of students at school who are not using ATAR to get to university?”

‘We’re facing a cliff’

Principal of Beenleigh State High School Matt O’Hanlon with student Ambrosia Jackson.(ABC News)

The debate over the quality of school-leaver pathways and vocational training could not be more timely, as this year’s seniors leave high school during the first recession since 1991.

“If you go back to the group who graduated from school during the global financial crisis, in fact they had been disadvantaged, they are still playing catch-up,” Professor Shergold said.

“It can take a number of years for events like this to wash through the system.”

Research has shown the long-term effect on recession-era school leavers, says EY chief economist Jo Masters.

“Economic research shows that it impacts your income for 10 years, if you’re unlucky enough to start [your career] in a recession,” Ms Masters told 7.30.

Jan Owen, co-convenor of Learning Creates Australia — a collaboration of philanthropic and education-sector stakeholders attempting to transform the system — said the promise that education makes about leading to careers and things like home ownership was “broken at the moment for a generation of young people”.

“There’s a scarring effect of events like COVID-19 on young people’s lives, which will continue for potentially decades,” Ms Owen said.

She said that with hundreds of thousands of students soon to finish school and higher education, “we’re facing a cliff even this year”.

“It’s very, very serious because if those young people can’t find a path of some kind into further learning, into jobs, into apprenticeships, into internships, we need to open up all the opportunities as far as we can.”

Digital learning and micro-credentialing the future

A teenage girl wearing a school uniform.
Ambrosia Jackson, 17, hopes to start her own cafe when she leaves school.(ABC News: Christopher Gillette)

Amid the gloomy outlook, there are ideas to help make education purpose fit for Australia in 2025.

Matt O’Hanlon is the principal of Beenleigh State High School in South East Queensland’s Logan City, an area with high youth unemployment.

“We’ve only got about 24 per cent of students who actually go for a university pathway. The rest of our students are looking for jobs,” Mr O’Hanlon told 7.30.

One of his pupils Ambrosia Jackson, 17, aspires to open a cafe when she leaves school.

“What worries me about the future is TAFE and stuff. I just worry that I won’t complete it. But fingers crossed. I have hope,” she said.

She is one of a handful of students in an Australia-wide trial of a digital micro-credentialing platform called Credly, facilitated by the University of Melbourne.

A man wears a shirt and tie.
School principal Matt O’Hanlon says micro-credentialing “recognises the 21st century skills”.(ABC News: Christopher Gillette)

It provides her with “digital badges” for competencies she has achieved in specific skills, such as barista skills, but also attributes like teamwork and communication skills that are not shown on traditional school leavers’ certificates.

It can give prospective employers a clearer portrait of her competencies and attributes.

It is all part of a greater emphasis on how students, both high school and above, leverage the digital space to showcase their learning and access short, sharp competencies in specific skills.

“A revolution is going on in terms of the education that people can gain, particularly online, and not just in Australia, around the world,” Professor Shergold said.

“Whatever the future holds, it’s going to require higher levels of digital literacy. And that has got to be a focus if we are going to be serious about education being the platform for equal opportunity in Australia.”

Watch part 1 of this special series on 7.30 tonight.

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