“VCE is unfair” – it is a whinge that you must surely have heard by now if you are undertaking Year 12 this year or if you know Year 12 students. In many areas, of course, there is substance to the complaint. For example, some teachers are better than others, some schools have better facilities or better academic cultures, and students from wealthier families are able to pay for tutoring and additional resources beyond the means of many of their peers.
Often enough though, the complaint is directed at the scaling system that VTAC applies to students’ VCAA-given (raw) Study Scores, which to the uninitiated can appear to unfairly reward students of some subjects while penalising students of other subjects. In this piece I will try to debunk that myth, explaining how scaling works and more importantly, why it exists.
Let’s start at the end of the exam period, the same period that the scoring and scaling process all begins. After the final exam for any given subject, VCAA examiners sit down and mark the exam papers, coming up with an exam mark for each student. This score is combined with the SAC (School Assessed Coursework) mark provided by the student’s school, though adjustments or investigations are sometimes made if there is a big discrepancy between the two. At this point, VCAA has a ranking of students by total score, and is able to sort these students along a normal distribution or ‘bell curve’. Most students will fall in the fat part in the middle of the curve, but the very best and worst scorers will occupy the long, thin ends of the curve. VCAA then assigns a score to students based on where they fall along this curve, from 1–50. A score of around 30 is average and a score of 40 or above means that the student is in the top 9% or so in that subject. This is the ‘Study Score’ or ‘raw score’, and it exists so that universities can know how a student performed compared to all the other students in that subject.
So far, so good – we have a scoring system that seems fair within each subject at least (since the better you do at a particular subject, the higher the Study Score you will receive). But what about across subjects? Is a 30 in Specialist Mathematics really the same as a 30 in Art, for example? In both cases, we know that the student is average in their discipline, but there is a problem: it is in fact ‘easier’ to get an average score in Art than it is in Specialist Maths. We know this because year after year, students of Specialist Maths perform far better in the GAT (General Achievement Test) and in their other subjects than do students of Art. Of course, not all of them do, but the average Specialist Maths student seems to be of a much higher academic calibre than the average Art student (no offence to Art students, of course, but this is what the statistics indicate). So it is hardly fair to give a 30 to average students in both subjects. If this were the practice, students interested in Specialist Maths would quickly switch to other subjects where they do not have to compete against such a strong field. Therefore, to make things fairer to students who have to compete against a strong field, VTAC applies a scaling system to even things out. Subjects like Specialist Maths and LOTEs scale up, so that a raw score of 30 might be scaled to around a 40. Meanwhile, many subjects scale up by smaller margins, some stay more or less flat, and some even scale down a little bit. The scaled scores of a student are combined to form an aggregate score which is compared against the aggregates of every other student in the state to form an ATAR.
The scaling system does not make the VCE unfair though. It is a system that is in place to even up a pre-existing unfairness: the incomparability of VCAA Study Scores due to differences in strength of field. The scaling system does not assume that some subjects are ‘harder’ than others, it just assumes that it is harder to get a good raw score in some subjects given the strength of the competition and tries to compensate students for this.
Of course, some students do not understand this and pick high-scaling subjects which they think will give them an edge. What they fail to realise is that they will be up against the best and brightest in the state, and will struggle to achieve a high raw score. The scaling will give their score a boost, but the end result may be much the same as if they had picked a low-scaling subject in which they would have likely achieved a higher raw score. Really, scaling should not be a factor when it comes to choosing VCE subjects, at least in most cases.
The VCE is not perfectly fair – in fact, there are many things about the VCE that seem obviously unfair. The scaling system, however, is not one of them. While it has certain flaws, it is on the whole a successful mechanism that counters what would otherwise be a blatantly unfair way of assigning scores to students across different subjects.
Jonathon is Connect Education’s VCE English Language lecturer. An Honours student in linguistics at Monash University, he is currently writing a thesis on the role of grammar and word order in politically correct language. He enjoys playing table tennis, following the AFL, and running LingSoc, the Monash University Linguistics Society.