Don’t sit that exam, you’ll bring the school average down


The Age reported yesterday on the tendency for some schools to discourage less academic students, who may harm the school’s test scores, from taking the final exams that allow students to qualify for university straight out of school. The article specifically concerns students in Victorian (Australia’s second most populous state), who can complete a vocational program (the VCAL), or an academic program (the VCE), the latter providing an option to finish with or without a score. If without a score, or if completing the VCAL, the school’s average is not affected as students do not receive an Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR). The article notes that students who do not receive an ATAR feel a lack of self-worth – they feel like ‘failures’ and ‘rejects’.

One of the students who continued with his academic studies, despite pressure from his school not to, received an ATAR of 53 (with 100 being top of the state and most degrees requiring substantially higher scores than 53).

Another student did not sit the exam, despite studying the academic program. He sat out the exams at the urging of his school. One teacher reportedly told him that he ‘was not cut-out for the high-stakes exam’.

According to one teacher, the process of urging lower achieving students from getting an ATAR was ‘sophisticated scheme’ to ‘weed out’ underperformers.


There a number of issues to discuss here:

The obsession with results over learning. In their current form, schooling causes an obsession with marks and results in senior school, with the students’ grades a ticket to university. For those hoping education would be an end in itself, the system would kill that hope. For those seeing it as a means to an end, the end is questionable. Too many students are attending university, and are not getting enough time working and gaining employable skills. Unfortunately, university is still a strong signal to employers of human capital.

It is true that many students are not cut out for the rigours of university. As Charles Murray wrote persuasively in Real Education, only 10-20% of students really have the aptitude to go to university and do it well. So, despite the seeming underhandedness of the schools’ urging of students to not gain university admissions ranks, the pressure for lower-achieving students to shift into vocational study is not a bad idea, particularly if strong avenues exist for them. This is in contrast to the advice from David Roycroft, principal of Oakwood School:

“He [Roycroft] says while VCAL is “terrific” in building vocational skills, it should not be the default option for students with low grades.

“If the student is thinking that they are heading towards tertiary study, then they should be doing a VCE program, regardless of their grades.””

Currently, I side with Murray on this. Murray argues that its better for someone to move into a vocation and earn a strong living than finish university near the bottom of the cohort and try to compete for jobs in a saturated market. The educated labour market may not pay-off for these students, and they should consider other pathways. The trouble here is that schools are urging these students to do vocational courses without a proper institutional or social backing for such an education. It is deemed less successful if a student learns a trade instead of attends university, and attention in schools is on the ATAR, so naturally less academic students feel marginalised. No wonder students who probably should be learning a trade are instead sitting the VCE and getting an ATAR of 53. (Admittedly, the student who scored 53 had aspirations of being a director and missed out on his desired course by only one mark. So perhaps it was the right call – he tried and failed, but good on him for having a go. Failure is ok! The question of whether a student should be at university with an ATAR of 53 (and universities accepting students with such scores) is another matter. Perhaps it is fine if the degree is not overly academic in nature (given that the ATAR is determined mainly by academic study)).

Despite the above comments, the student that studied the VCE but was discouraged from sitting the exams and getting an ATAR, has been done a tremendous disservice by his school. If the student was not overly academic, he should have been encouraged to go into vocational study much earlier. It is cruel to say to this student that, after all the study he had done, you are not good enough to sit the exams. The point of the exams is to determine if the student is good enough. Not the teacher. Making this decision at such a late point is a let-down for the student. It suggests the school did not have the student’s interests at heart.

Time spent focusing on growth of the individual outside of school, or finding other avenues after school other than university, could be time well spent. Students can unschool themselves – a process of ridding the strictures and focus of schooling from the person, to enable them to become the person they should be, not the person the schooling system channeled them towards. Working and exploring passions are ideal ways to do this. Earning a living and transitioning into the adult world with a flourishing hobby are rewarding and productive ways of entering adulthood, and should make those who do it, happy. Given the rise of mental health issues, this is no mean feat.


Overall, the article is a reflection of our obsession with the school-university-graduate job track in life. That track may well fall apart as we find better signals of human capital and learning becomes increasingly separate from schooling. The effect of this system on students and schools is detrimental. Students should have choices to enable them to flourish, and our obsession with schooling is getting in the way of that.





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