99.95% problems with Year 12 exams

Earlier this week, I left my laptop hanging over the back of a chair in a cafe in Blackheath. By the time I realised, I was in Orange, which is more than 100km away. This was a big problem, to put it mildly. For one thing, if I hadn’t gotten it back, I would have had to tap out this article on my phone. Although that may have made me more concise.

When I discovered the loss, I panicked, and then resigned myself to a three-hour round trip early the following morning, during which I planned to lash myself with a knotted cord like the freaky Opus Dei monk in The Da Vinci Code, despite the potentially detrimental impact on my driving.

And then my colleague Luke came up with an ingenious solution. He arranged for the kind folk at the Wattle Cafe to take the bag down to Katoomba, where it would board a bus to Orange, where he would collect it for me. It was in my hands just a few hours later, and I didn’t even have to get out of my comfortable chair.

Now, there are several lessons from this story. Firstly, whenever you’re in Blackheath, I strongly recommend the Wattle Cafe, especially if you’re forgetful. Secondly, if you ever need help with a complex logistical challenge, contact Luke, who I imagine could organise a rapid troop deployment behind enemy lines in his sleep.

But the main reason for mentioning the story is because I’ve had recent experience of losing something that I felt was rightfully mine. Which gives me a certain degree of insight into the plight of Sarah Hui Xin Wong, who this week lost her appeal over her mark of 99.95 in the 2008 Higher School Certificate.

Now, I have detected just a hint of Schadenfreude in the widespread fascination with Ms Wong’s case, which was demonstrated by the fact that over the past two days, separate articles about it have featured in the five most-viewed articles list at smh.com.au. Poor Sarah was not only forced to retain a mark that was merely excellent, but the media attention exposed her to widespread ridicule from all those who scored below 99.95 themselves. That is to say, roughly 99.95% of us.

Even if her appeal had been successful and she’d retrospectively achieved that elusive 100, it would have been a Pyrrhic victory given the media coverage. (Which I suppose makes the result a Pyrrhic defeat?) As things stand, she’s gained absolutely nothing from the experience besides infamy. Although I don’t know whether the story is over – she may yet appeal to the High Court, or perhaps the UN Security Council.

But try and see it from Ms Wong’s perspective. Many may have seen her academic glass as 99.95% full, but she saw it as 0.05% empty. Many may have felt that her successful entry into medicine was a sufficiently good enough outcome for her to be content. And many of us might have reflected how glad we were that everybody stopped thinking about our Year 12 exams a month into first year university, once we’d all figured out who got more than us and whom we could therefore resent until graduation.

But we must remember that Sarah is a med student. I can only assume that in that particular social milieu, the kids who got 100 constantly kick sand in the faces of those who scored a mere 99.95.

Besides, her claim may have had some merit. Take this statement from the SMH report: “She told the tribunal she believed if she had been granted a computer or extra time, she would have achived much higher marks.” Now, that’s fairly difficult to dispute. In fact, now that I think of it, I reckon I could also have achieved higher marks if I’d been allowed to touch-type essays and given an extra hour.  My hand cramped and my writing became illegible after three hours of writing too. Am I too late to appeal the 1994 HSC?

It might be easier to find sympathy for Sarah Wong if we think of her as an elite athlete, or perhaps mathlete, that might remind us that those who perform at an elite level can nevertheless be wronged. I don’t see anybody reacting with disgust whenever Ricky Ponting uses the decision review system to overturn a dodgy lbw decision. I don’t stand at the edge of the oval and yell “Hey Ricky, suck it up and be grateful for the centuries you’ve already made”, because back when I was in the 13D XI in high school, I only once made it into double figures and we didn’t win a single match all season.

Although I would like to formally review one of my many cheap dismissals, if anybody has footage of our match against Newington College and access to Hawkeye. I’m certain to this day that the bowler was over the line.

Reading between the lines of the articles about Sarah Wong – or indeed, reading the specific line where it’s noted that the appeal was filed by her mother – we can tell that there may have been some parental pressure at play here. In which case, we should perhaps be more sympathetic than sneering.

But what her story really reminded me is how awful the Higher School Certificate was. In my case, the intense pressure to achieve inspired me to sit in my bedroom learning how to play Cure songs on the guitar and thinking that nobody had ever felt as depressed that I had in the history of the human race rather than to study extremely hard in a bid to get 100. But I can imagine that for those who did, the experience was even more hideous than mine, and even less tuneful.

I really don’t see the point of forcing school students through such an unpleasant experience. There are other systems for university entry, which include interviews and a list of a candidate’s other interests. And even if we must sit exams, it surely isn’t necessary to divide everyone up by 0.05% bands, and create this silly target of 100%. As everyone who’s been to university knows, if you don’t get a great mark in the HSC, there’s no shortage of subsequent opportunities to shine, many of which are far more meaningful than a bunch of exams.

To end the unnecessary sadism of Year 12, we should make the most competitive courses like medicine and law graduate entry-only, as they are in America. Many medicine programmes have already switched to grad-only, but this should happen across the board, making everyone’s first degree one that’s relatively easy to get into and allowing them to blow off a bit of steam during their first few years of adulthood.

If there was no med degree to aim for, and Sarah Wong had only found out whether she’d gotten into a general humanities or science course instead of having had to try for the yardstick of 100 which is entirely meaningless in later life, I wonder whether her Year 12 experience mightn’t have been a happier one. I’m sure mine would have been. Although without it, I wouldn’t know how to play ‘Lullaby’ on the guitar.

Let’s hope that Sarah Wong can now get on with the rest of her inevitably highly successful life, and that when she looks back in ten years, she’ll barely remember what she got in the HSC. There are achievements in life which matter, of course, and they’re worth working hard to accomplish. But nobody ever lay on their deathbed regretting 0.05% in their Year 12 exams.

One Response to 99.95% problems with Year 12 exams

  1. Len Heggarty 12 July 2012 at 2:31 pm #

    I read “Earlier this week . . .” I was just wondering what day that was?
    I wonder if Dom knows what day of this weak week it was?

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