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Sitting 'the test': oranges or apples?

By Kate Mannix - posted Friday, 7 March 2014

On 13 March, some 13,000 NSW Year 6 children will sit the Department of Education's Selective Test, with a view to gaining one of the approximately 4000 selective places in NSW selective schools. My two youngest children will be among them.

Our local selective school is James Ruse Agricultural High School. They won't get in, though. Advised by primary schools to make sure their children had 'space' and 'play' and 'a childhood', mothers like me rejected the coaching culture that increasingly dominates the educational space up here in the great North West. Other parents made the opposite choice, and often for entirely cultural reasons.

My Shanghai-born friend, Paul, explained to me that in China and Korea, unless you pass the test, you cannot move up to the next level. Unless you pass the test, you bring shame on your family. Not passing the test can mean the difference between remaining in rural poverty, or moving into urban affluence.


At our school, in the lead up to the selective test, many year 6 students are going to coaching between three and seven days a week. The Department manifestly refuses to recognize that there is a link between gaining entry to selective schools and the explosion of coaching colleges. Incredibly, the Department of Education actually publishes the percentages of students with language backgrounds other than English (LBOTE) who attend selective schools (between 70% and 81% in 2012).

It is the LBOTE students who dominate the rolls of the coaching colleges, and according to the Department's own publicly available information, selective schools. You would think that the Department might see a bit of a link there. But no.

My friend, Paul, listens sympathetically. 'You don't want your children to go to James Ruse,' he says.

Paul's two children do not go to James Ruse. They go to another local selective school. He tells me he did not send them to a coaching college. 'Thousands and thousands of dollars to go to coaching! I can't afford it!' he said. I believe him. After twenty-five years in Australia, Paul still sends money home to China, every month.

The Department has claimed to me that schools can only determine if a child is 'hard working'. Only the Selective Schools' Unit test can tell if a child actually has 'ability'. But questions of ability, or 'intelligence', are vexed. What we have discovered is that the NSW test is geared to the non-verbal, the mathematical, and to speed.

We have four children. The eldest was sent for a Weschler Intelligence Scale for Children (WISC IV) test when she was eleven. The WISC IV is the gold standard intelligence test, accepted around the world. The test measures 'verbal comprehension'; 'perceptual reasoning'; working memory and processing speed.


Her 'perceptual reasoning' (spatial nonverbal reasoning, hand eye coordination, working with visual information) was high as was her 'processing speed' (how quickly new information can be sorted in a time limited situation). Her verbal comprehension was assessed as a 'relative weakness'. That child was accepted into selective school.

Our second child also did the WISC IV at a similar age. This child was assessed as 'Very Superior' in verbal comprehension, our capacity to think and solve problems with words. This child is in the top 1% of students and twice assessed by educational psychologists as gifted in English. Her other measures were high. That child was not accepted into selective school.

Paul has heard this rant before. He sighs. 'Why didn't you send them for coaching?' 'Paul,' I say, 'I've just told you. These kids were smart. They shouldn't need coaching,'

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About the Author

Kate Mannix is the founding editor of On Line Catholics, which she edited between 2003 and 2005. Before that she was a senior researcher at ABC Television. She has edited the Catholic Church's e-zines Ozspirit, and various publications for schools.

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