Naomi Habib, a high achieving student from Merrylands, Photo Credit: Brook Mitchell
Students living in Sydney’s hardest-hit local government areas during last year’s COVID-19 lockdown achieved higher Australian Tertiary Admission Ranks than in previous years, and the ATARs of those living outside them were lower.
Experts said several factors could have driven the change, such as significant use of special considerations, or poorer performances from students outside hotspot council areas, or the fact that lockdowns took away social options and gave students more time to study.
Those with ATARs below 85 in hotspot council areas typically achieved ranks between 0.75 and 1.8 higher than would have been expected from the results achieved in 2016 and 2019, said a report on scaling in the 2021 HSC from the University Admissions Centre (UAC).
The resulting “depression” in ATARs for those outside the LGAs was smaller, as it was spread across more students, the report said. Those with ranks around 55 achieved up to 0.7 lower than expected, and students from northern Sydney with ATARs below 85 may have had their ranks depressed by up to 1.6.
UAC’s technical committee - made up of university mathematicians and statisticians - said the impact of the Delta lockdown on ranks did not undermine the validity of the ATAR, which is used by top universities to select students for popular courses.
Kim Paino, the general manager of marketing and engagement at UAC, said the boost for those in LGAs of concern was small and there was no impact at all for the top 15 per cent of students.
“To put the size of the shift in context, a student earning one or two extra marks on each of their exam papers would have had a similar increase to their ATAR,” she said. “It’s hard to be certain of the exact cause of the increase.
“While some students may have been given special consideration, others may have improved because of the situation they were in, with less distraction and more time to study."
“It’s also possible that the relative improvement in performance from these students was in fact due to a small drop in performance from students outside the LGAs of concern. Those students scoring one or two marks less on each of their exam papers would produce the same outcome in terms of ATAR distribution.”
Professor James Tognolini, an expert in education measurement at the University of Sydney, said the results showed students used their time well during lockdown. “I am not surprised that results were better than people predicted,” he said.
Students in Local Government Areas of concern had tighter restrictions on their movement than those in other areas for most of term three of year 12, such as a curfew and a ban on leaving homes for more than an hour a day.
Many were unable to go to school to finish or pick up major projects for subjects such as art and industrial design, or to collect laptops. As a result, many hotspot schools - which were also home to disadvantaged students - could apply for special consideration provisions.
They allowed students whose exam marks were significantly lower than expected to have their HSC mark based on their moderated school assessment instead.
Another close observer of the HSC, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said it was difficult to pinpoint one reason behind a shift in ATARs in 2021 because so many things were different due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
They ranged from an unprecedented number of early university offers, which principals say often lead to students becoming complacent and putting in less effort, to students in dance and music losing their opportunity to perform and being moderated on their essay marks instead.
Delays to deadlines for major works may have meant some students kept working on their art or design projects rather than focusing on other subjects. “There’s no way [the NSW Education Standards Authority] could have made the whole situation fair,” the observer said.
Naomi Habib went to Delany College in Granville, which was in the Cumberland LGA of concern. She achieved an ATAR of 93.95, and was thrilled.
While lockdown robbed her of many year 12 milestones, it also took much of the stress of ordinary life - she didn’t have to go to work, or commute to school. “I feel like it wasn’t as bad as it felt in the moment,” she said.
“It gave me a lot more time to relax and manage my HSC responsibilities. We still had so much support from our teachers; our teachers were constantly emailing us, always available. The stress was focused on the lockdowns but it was kind of removed from the HSC, in a way.”