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The HSC subjects in which more students are getting top bands

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Students are more likely to achieve top two band scores in HSC courses including English advanced, visual arts and physics when compared with a decade ago, while subjects such as modern history and maths extension 1 have dipped slightly over the same time.

A Herald analysis of HSC data over 10 years to 2022 reveals two-thirds of English advanced pupils were awarded the highest two bands last year, with band 5 results rising by about 25 per cent over the decade. The top two bands indicate a mark of 80 or above.

Chemistry results in the highest bands have been steady for a decade, but slipped in 2022 with one-third of students achieving band 5 and 6 results. In modern history, the proportion of students achieving band 5s has dropped from 36 to 24 per cent.

An expert in educational measurement from Sydney University, Professor Jim Tognolini, said it was important to look at results for each course over time, as performance bands in different subjects cannot be compared.

“It’s essential students choose the courses they are passionate about. In doing so, their score will be maximised,” he said.

“If you look at the standards, a band 4 in chemistry, for example, requires a high level of skill and knowledge which is excellent preparation and basis for a range of university courses,” he said.

HSC bands outline what students can do in that subject when they finish school, and the NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA) writes the descriptions for each discipline. The Universities Admissions Centre then scales results to make sure the difficulty of each course is accounted for before students receive their ATAR.

The decade worth of data comes as science teachers warn an intensifying focus on band 6s and E4s for extension subjects, or marks of 90 and above, is pushing students away from taking academically rigorous subjects. NESA only releases the highest band data, and it forms the basis of merit lists.

President of the NSW Science Teachers’ Association Margaret Shepherd said in chemistry, course content in the final exam must be applied in new and unfamiliar situations to be able to score band 5s and 6s. “It is a challenging subject, but, like physics and biology, the subjects open doors to so many career options and university courses,” she said.

One science teacher, who spoke anonymously because they were not authorised to comment, said with some courses more difficult than others, “we have a situation where students can end up taking subjects that it’s easier to get a band 6”.

“The unfortunate side effect is students can be discouraged from taking sciences, and, in the worst-case situations, has led to cancelled classes.” Chemistry and physics enrolments fell 10 and 17 per cent respectively when comparing 2013 figures with this year’s cohorts.

The proportion of students achieving top band results in English advanced, visual arts and physics has increased in the past ten years.Credit: Louise Kennerley

“We have under-resourcing in schools, and an urgent need to address serious teacher shortages in these subjects,” said the teacher, who has worked in public high schools for 15 years. “We need to be encouraging as many students as possible into science subjects.”

The HSC physics course has become calculations heavy, they said, and is attracting students with a high-level maths ability who are also taking the toughest maths courses.

Physics education expert and consultant Simon Crook said he was concerned some students are steered into subjects where they might be more likely to get a top band, and away from sciences. “And that is detrimental to Australia, and society at large,” he said.

Crook said under the chemistry syllabus changes in 2019, quantitative analysis was introduced, “and that hadn’t been around for many years, which could have had an impact on performance.”

Syllabus changes in maths extension 1 are likely to have had a knock-on effect with a dip in E3s, said Dr Ben Zunica, a mathematics education lecturer at Sydney University. The top two bands in extension courses are E3 and E4.

“The new course, first examined in 2020, introduced new topics like differential equations, continuous probability distributions and vectors,” Zunica said.

“This involved a large learning curve for teachers to get up to speed and with pandemic disruptions meant that the raw performance by students was probably not up to the same standard as in previous years,” he said.

“It’s a common issue with new courses and the judging team usually work these things out. It is a tough course that provides the backbone to many uni courses. It does not necessarily point to declining student performance, it could be a need to re-evaluate their performance in light of the new content.”

There has been an upswing in top band results for English extension 1, with the proportion of students achieving E4s leaping 60 per cent compared with 2013.

Students are more likely to score in the top band in maths extension 2, music 1, visual arts, textiles and design and drama. Personal development, health and physical education (PDHPE) results in the top two bands combined have fallen about 10 per cent.

Teachers say the lift in band 5s in English advanced could be a result of syllabus updates that eliminated texts that students studied independently and instead prescribed specific texts.

Robin Nagy, director at education consultancy Academic Profiles, said many students are capable of studying chemistry, physics and extension maths, and more should be urged to take the courses.

“Perhaps there needs to be a larger proportion of bread and butter questions for the harder maths exams and greater differentiation towards the end of the papers,” he said.

Achievement in each HSC course is reported against standards, rather than a bell curve, so the proportion of students in the bands changes each year.

A spokesperson for NESA said while performance across bands remains fairly consistent year-on-year, it is normal for there to be some fluctuation.

“As is always the case, we encourage students to choose HSC subjects that they are interested in and that align to their post-school goals – that is when they perform best.”

HSC results for 2023 will be released to students on December 14.

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