HSC English: Standard or Advanced?

Does your school offer both Standard and Advanced English courses for the HSC?  How about ESL? Extension courses?  If not – why not?

This is a question that has been debated over the past couple of days via email between members of the NSW English Teachers’ Association.

One member asked: Do you think it is wise to only offer the Advanced course to students? His school leaders have been advised that this will lead to higher ATAR scores for students at the school.

Here are some of the responses that were given via email in support of offering a diverse range of courses:

“The emotional pressure on students to learn (=compete and achieve) at an Advanced level was very detrimental in the schools I observed [that had decided to take away the option for Standard English].  Students’ self concept was very low for the bottom achievers in the Advanced stream, where in schools that also run Standard these kids might still perform lower, but they do so with the knowledge that they are in a different, less ‘academic’ course.  Or, they find themselves at the top of the Standard course, and their self concept goes up.  Offering Advanced-only also limits your capacity to differentiate learning for students, and it builds a distorted sense of entitlement and expectation among parents.”

“I have been discouraging some students who want to do Advanced.  Last year when I arrived there seenmed to be some students who really should have taken Standard.  Advanced can be soul destroying for them and can impede the progress of others.”

“I was also put under pressure [to increase] value-added – they argue that it is better for everyone to do Advanced because scaling boosts poor Advanced marks above good Standard marks and there may be an infinitesimally better uni ranking as a result. Whether this is actually the case or not is difficult to accurately gauge – there seems to be a lot of numerical flim-flam in the value-adding business. What is clear, however, is that students who struggle in Advanced and then withdraw from discussions and activities they feel are beyond them engage much more readily in Standard classes and find themselves enjoying English – heaven forfend!”

“I remember this type of pressure being applied at a previous school of mine – with the result of good Standard students being forced to do Advanced.  That type of auditor-driven statistical analysis does not take into account the different kind of intellectual demands required to be a success in Advanced.  At my current school, we have scaled back our Advanced classes because there were a number of students who were not suited to the contextual and researching demands of the Advanced syllabus – they were also not motivated readers”

Comments like these about student welfare were reinforced by teachers who had marked HSC English scripts and saw the outcome at the other end:

“Anyone who has marked Advanced will know there are many students out there who really should not have sat the course and would have been better off in Standard, where they would have had a much better opportunity to show what they knew and understood.”

“From the point of view of Advanced HSC marking, as many of you will have experienced, it is becoming more frequent to see that “poor child” who should have been advised to do Standard, often in the middle of a bundle of very competent students.”

Some teachers were in favour of pushing the Advanced course, and gave a mixture of pedagogical and statistical reasons for this:

“There is an ongoing debate about this in schools around mine. The pressure in schools is to achieve better than state mean and this can be easily achieved by encouraging students to do Standard rather than Advanced… I believe this is anti educational and think any student who is interested should have the opportunity to do the more interesting and challenging Advanced course. In terms of value added, this does us no favours [to push students into the Standard course]. Have a look at the difference in the curves for Advanced and Standard on the value added graph. Again I could easily make the actual course results look better by encouraging more students to do Standard and indeed have at times been pressured to do so. If you run the Advanced students against the overall English Value Added curve you get a different picture, however.”

“Our students do seem to get a strong sense of achievement from doing Advanced and actually engage well with texts which have not much relationship to their lives and experience. I agree that the Standard course is difficult since it is so language based and that is what students have trouble with…We don’t not offer Standard because it is too easy, but because our students can and do gain a great deal from the Advanced course and they value it. Or is it their parents? It just seems a pity that it is much more difficult to get very high marks in Standard than Advanced but it is historic. Remember why we brought in the common strand in the first place?”

Other teachers had arguments that spoke to the benefits of or need for the Standard course:

“What we have done is to present the challenges of the Advanced course to Year 10, outlining exactly the demands.  We have also challenged Advanced students in Year 11 to consider seriously the demands of the course.  This has meant many more “borderline” students have chosen Standard, either at the end of Year 10 or the end of the Preliminary course.  As a result, we have had excellent Standard results from students who either deliberately chose to do Standard, or changed at the end of Preliminary when they struggled in the Advanced.  The end result in those cases were very happy students and parents.”

“We certainly could not omit Standard from our curriculum, and fortunately, we are also able to maintain a more academic focus by running one advanced class. I hope that by doing that, we are meeting the diverse learning needs of the type of students who attend a school such as ours. I know this is not the same issue – but spare a thought for the large number of country schools who are struggling to offer courses and to do that, both Standard and Advanced are offered in the same room, sometimes with both 11 and 12 together as well. That is the only way their wide range of learning needs (for just a small number) can be met – either that, or Advanced is not offered at all.”

The role of school administrators in balancing the need for high results against student welfare and quality learning was also raised:

“Perhaps some school administrators need to be reminded of such determiners for course choice as “needs, interests and abilities of students”- not to mention their health and well-being. When there is a significant percentage of boarders these factors are particularly critical.”

“I think the whole debate is disgusting because no-one is talking about what we think students should know; i.e. education. Instead the whole debate seems to be about what puts the school in a better light statistically. Let’s worry about what our students should learn and where they are at, not what looks better for our school. How has this abominable shift in what teachers are thinking happened? Well we all know the answer to that: and the answer is not the National Curriculum.”

“It has been interesting to see two distinct problems emerge from this question and also dispiriting that in both cases it is all about perceived numerical and statistical success, with anti-educational ‘solutions’ imposed on English faculties from above.”

The debate itself was in fact surprising to some:

“Coming from an area of the state that is maybe too far in the bush, I have never realised that this would be an issue. I know that some schools, for very good reasons such as being selective, have none or very few Standard students, and that is just a given, but I would have thought that the majority of schools in the state would not fall into that category. I guess that might be blissful lack of knowledge or awareness on my part!”

I’d (we all!) be interested to hear how other schools and English faculties are approaching this question.

When I put the question out to Twitter this afternoon, this is what tweeple had to say:

“I think English should be an elective course. If they haven’t got it by year 10 why go further?”

“Really? [that not all states have mandatory English] so only NSW is dumb enough to think senior english is for all.”

“I think students should be allowed to go with what interests them – as long as they understand the possible implications 4 ATAR”

“NO! [to only offering Advanced]…particularly for gender focused classes, does the fact 45 marks are the same Area Of Study matter?”

“Imagine a male, studying Chem, bio, physics, a couple of Maths subjects, Standard English is perfect…”

“What about the kids doing 2 VET, ITP, PE, Industrial tech, do they need standard English?”

“Eng so much more than writing essays 4 exams. Lets push boundaries so studs fall in love with English”

“I know pressure of getting good results! Would like to think we can make results gr8 via love of learning. Combine both 4 synergy”

How do you decide what HSC Engish courses to run and who gets to do them??

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  1. #1 by Jan on March 13, 2010 - 7:27 pm

    Thoughtful post Kelli. I think the comment raised about welfare of students, their interests and needs contrasting to position of school (and even reputation) is important. I think its very insigthful and indicates a sense of great understanding of how we learn that you have put the question, offered the debate and yet not put forward a “solution.” Your approach encourages further discourse which in and of itself is a powerful learning tool.
    Thanks Kelli.

  2. #2 by Paula Madigan on March 13, 2010 - 8:03 pm

    Great to see the discussion started.

    I have always been of the belief that students should and can do the course they are interested in. I have always had several students in my Advanced class that really should be doing Standard but they have chosen to keep going with the Advanced course because they have found the texts and modules more interesting than what has been offered at Standard level. This might not have been the best course of action for their UAI/ATAR but they have enjoyed the texts and stimulation – isn’t that one of the key purposes for education?

    At the same time there are always students doing the Standard Course that should be doing Advanced Course, ability wise, but choose not because of the demands of their other subjects or just because they aren’t that excited by English literature, esp anything earlier than 1950! That also is their right and who are we to dictate otherwise?

    Yes, we are driven increasingly by data and value adding but I still think that developing a lifelong love of learning regardless of the final mark is more important. The continuous focus on what will get me the best mark/ATAR can actually destroy the joy of our subject and destroy the students’ self esteem and passion.

    There is no best way except what is best for the student – from a holistic perspective.

  3. #3 by kmcg2375 on March 13, 2010 - 8:55 pm

    Great points Paula – it is also worth remembering that, if you are concerned with marks primarily (which also is the right of students and their parents) that you are more likely to do well in a subject you enjoy. For that reason students/teachers should be thinking about the texts/electives they will be studying in the respective courses.

    Many teachers have made reference to the boring (or otherwise) nature of the texts in the Standard, but no-one has been specific here. I wonder if this is just a matter of opinion, and if our opinion as teachers reflects the opinions of students?

  4. #4 by kmcg2375 on March 13, 2010 - 8:57 pm

    Thanks Jan – I’ve been doing a lot of reading about the balance between educational ideals and the (complex and necessarily compromised) role of state bureaucracies in providing them. I haven’t finished digesting it yet, but look forward to blogging about it soon 🙂

  5. #5 by Mark on March 13, 2010 - 9:16 pm

    But, (dramatic pause), what about the new English Studies course? I think it looks great – but will schools offer a non-ATAR alternative?

  6. #6 by David Chapman on March 14, 2010 - 6:24 am

    An interesting minefield – Adv v Std. We have real tensions at my school about how to advise students – with about half of the staff encouraging kids to have a go, and the other wanting to make the stats look good. I find myself worrying a great deal about each student, and what is best for them. Problem is that they often cannot articulate what they want – making it harder to advise them on a direction.

    Personally I think that where possible all options should be given to students – but the key is to given honest feedback, and as early as possible. This avoids problems later with the student (and/or parents).

    On the side note – English Studies (we are a trial school) is looking like being a fantastic option. We do not have a high take up of it – but for the few, it appears to be a great choice.

  7. #7 by darcymoore on March 14, 2010 - 6:43 am


    Students, of course, should be attempting the most appropriate course for their abilities, interests and future plans. IMHO this conversation needs to be situated in the wider context re: the future validity & relevance of an increasingly anachronistic looking HSC; the impact of our creation of Selective HSs (and the coaching industry’s influence on) the selective tests in Year 6; and, our general need to (re)organise the curriculum for our times and beyond.

    However, I know this post is about the issue of course selection.

    A point to consider is that some schools do not have enough ‘Advanced’ students to really offer it at all but feel the breadth of choice is too limited, for a sustainable future in Yr 11/12 at the school, unless the more challenging course runs. Also, if you have 1-2 Extension students, it is essential they have opportunity or else students are forced to attend other schools.

    The creation of Selective HSs has badly unbalanced the local comprehensive and ‘administrators’ at these ‘local’ schools are dealt a difficult hand in attempting to keep the ‘data’ respectable. English HTs need to resist poor options presented by principals with open dialogue based on sound ethics and values about learning and education, not decisions made in the worst excesses of data-driven regimes.

  8. #8 by Troy on March 14, 2010 - 7:56 am

    In my first school, a country school, there was pressure to have an Advanced group. I had students from year 9 through to year 12, the same group of students for four years, that helped, but still some could have done very well in Standard English…

    Another point to this divide is using School Certificate marks as the sole indicator in the selection between Advanced and Standard. I always clearly state if students start at Advanced that they are moving across not down.

    Clear and concise feedback from a range of teachers- open discussion at faculty levels, a culture of open discussion is needed and where students are not placed in the ‘A’ stream or ‘B’ stream from year seven and pigeon holed for their entire school life (sorry that’s what happened to me!). Running real taster lessons with year ten would be brilliant. A problem we have is the narrower focus on School Certificate has led to a portion of my current Advanced students arriving with a lack of confidence in their essay/critical response writing skills. School Certificate English = Oranges, Prelim and HSC = Apples…

    We tried to be a part of the pilot non-ATAR course, but failed to get a start, seeing we didn’t even offer Fundamentals, I can see how we didn’t show how we already cater for those students taking a number of VET or those included in Pathways structure.

    Under the new National Curriculum there may be up to four English courses (hopefully NOT levels!), I would like to see the option of students direction- interviews, portfolios of various student pieces of work- to see what course they choose.

    “Many teachers have made reference to the boring (or otherwise) nature of the texts in the Standard, but no-one has been specific here.” That might be cultural cringe: The Simple Gift, Maestro, Cosi, The Castle are my four for my Standard group…four Australian texts, not one non-Angelo present, sadly…but highly engaging, a range of styles and ideas.

  9. #9 by Paula Madigan on March 14, 2010 - 8:27 am

    We too are a trial school for the CEC English Studies course but unlike David we had so many kids interested in it that we could have run 2 classes.

    It is a great alternative to the ATAR courses – focusing on the role of English in life and work – but still varied and potentially challenging enough to excite a range of student abilities. Not everyone wants an ATAR (even the ‘bright’ students) and this is proving to be a great course.

    I know that the BOS, in part, created this course to have a working option up and running that would fit into the 4 course Australian Curriculum Model. It will be interesting to see if it is adopted…

  10. #10 by Hayley on March 14, 2010 - 4:38 pm

    My school is also trialling English Studies, and we had a very high intake. So far I am loving teaching this course as it has the flexibility that allows me to be able to negotiate with students about what their needs are and how we should approach them.
    I have only been teaching for 4.5 years and have seen students of various abilities attempting courses that simply are not suitable for them.
    I totally endorse English Studies and hope that it will become a part of the curriculum for good.

  11. #11 by kmcg2375 on March 15, 2010 - 9:06 pm

    I often wonder about how many teachers really do integrate (or at least, how effectively they integrate) the mandatory workplace texts into the Standard course. And if these are part of what people like, or if these are one of the things that English teachers find to be ‘dry’.

    The new English Studies course is an exciting (and long awaited) move. Concerns that teachers had about the old ‘contemporary’ English course are negated here – students who want an ATAR score and should be doing Standard or Advanced English can’t ‘cop out’ with the non-ATAR English Studies course.

  12. #12 by Rizzy Phillips on January 27, 2012 - 11:30 am

    Hi all the teachers,
    I’m a year 11 boy’s parent. By reading all the comments, I’m still confused what students should take Adv and what students should take Stan. Is Adv scale up more than Stan? Is Adv much harder than Stan? Can the student take Adv and move to Stan later year?

    • #13 by kmcg2375 on January 29, 2012 - 1:12 am

      Rizzy, the truth is that no-one can truly predict which course – Standard or Advanced – will be ‘better’ for one student or another. It is true that students in the Standard course will read/view one less text (four texts in Standard compared to five in Advanced), but both of the courses are very difficult.

      As a rule, Advanced is the place for students who ‘love English’ – you have to love scrutinising language and critiquing different points of view and polishing your writing.

      Yes, it is definitely possible to change from Advanced to Standard (you can ‘try before you buy’), though you should check with your school about the best times to do this. Moving up from Standard to Advanced is also technically possible, but less frequent.

      Sadly it is very difficult to get a Band 6 in Advanced English, and EVEN HARDER to get one in Standard English. (There are not good reasons for this, and the English Teachers’ Association has been lobbying the Board of Studies for a more generous grading system for years, to no avail.) This doesn’t mean they don’t ‘scale well’…that side of things is very hard to punt on.

      My advice would be to ask the English head teacher for the exact texts that your son will be studying. Sometimes students who are capable of doing Advanced end up hating the books and films that their school chooses to study, so it’s worth asking about that. FYI: Students in the Advanced course MUST study Shakespeare.

      I hope that helps!

  13. #14 by Mano on February 2, 2012 - 11:07 pm

    Hello everyone
    I’m a student in year 12 and I honestly don’t know whether to do advanced or standard english. Help me! Everyone has a divided opinion and I just don’t know what to do. I’m aiming for a 93+ ATAR and I hear doing standard english doesn’t scale very well to get the top marks. But I’m not doing that great in Adv english. Some people tell me to keep it, others tell me to drop it. And the next few days are probably my last chance to drop or I will miss out on work in Standard. What do you think I should do?

    • #15 by tina on January 28, 2013 - 6:55 pm

      english advanced won’t scale you up if you don’t do well. did you decide to drop it in the end? im also aiming for 93+ but english is so useless

  14. #16 by Sharon on December 3, 2016 - 5:02 pm

    The trouble with Advanced English is the teachers. To suggest that they are innovative in their approach to teaching, or that they have high expectations of their students is really not how it is. Many take a negative approach to those capable students struggling simply because their teacher cannot teach and the whole year is spent so called teaching them how to write an essay. This was the case at my boys school. As a teacher I am appalled at the standard of teaching .When do these teachers say to themselves “what could I be doing better” NOT continually “you should drop to Standard.

  1. 2010 in review « Kelli McGraw

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