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Floating gently on a waft of edu-dribble

By John Ridd - posted Tuesday, 6 June 2006

The recent report, Australian Certificate of Education: Exploring a way forward, gives as its objective is “to set nationally consistent high standards (and) to improve the comparability of results across Australia”. That objective is laudable. Unfortunately the report is, for all its good points, fatally flawed.

In the last resort if there are to be “consistent” standards then there must be assessment systems in place enabling that consistency to exist and be seen to exist. The report “sees the development of shared achievement standards” which sounds promising, but then states “there can continue to be flexibility in how evidence is collected (for example, external assessments and/or school based assessments)”.

Queensland has for many years used school-based assessment. Because the report implies the existing Queensland system would be acceptable, an examination of that system has national significance.


In the mid 1970s an ingenious system of assessment for Years 11 and 12 was set up by the Board of Secondary School Studies. In outline it operated as follows:

Syllabi for each subject were written that provided a sufficiently detailed description of the concepts and material that was to be studied and assessed in each school.

Tests and exams were given regularly. The results of these were normally given as a mark. District Moderation Committees for each subject, later District Panels, comprising teachers from the schools in the area met and examined the exam papers and student work from all schools. The school was then advised as to whether the schools suggested results (then on a seven point scale) were acceptable.

The key issue always was comparability of results and standards between schools. Essentially the objective was to ensure that a student receiving a 6 rating, for example, would have received a 6 at any other school. Where a panel considered that a school’s ratings were inappropriate, not comparable with other school’s standards, detailed suggestions were forwarded to the school.

If, after due consideration and discussion, a school still considered the District Panel was incorrect, it could appeal to the subject State Panel. That panel re-examined the student work, and being cognisant of standards over the whole state, informed the school of its decisions.

The employees of the board were astute and combined a forward-looking approach while maintaining a highly practical grasp of reality. It was altogether a professional and committed organisation.


In my experience the overall outcomes for the students were fair. I cannot remember a single case when I thought a significant injustice had been done to a student - either too harsh or too soft. It was a good, transparent, system: it worked.

It is vital to note that:

  1. the subject syllabi were clear, hence ensuring that it was evident to the panel that each school had fulfilled its syllabus obligations;
  2. the various panels knew the conditions under which the various assessment instruments were done. Their provenance was certain;
  3. the students knew the worth of each piece of assessment and how the various pieces of assessment would be used to reach their final result - they knew the rules of the game.
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About the Author

John Ridd taught and lectured in maths and physics in UK, Nigeria and Queensland. He co-authored a series of maths textbooks and after retirement worked for and was awarded a PhD, the topic being 'participation in rigorous maths and science.'

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