‘How outrageous and impossible is that?’: factoring in how year 12 students coped in lockdown is a grading nightmare for teachers


Year 12 students in Sydney who live or go to school in an area affected by stage 4 lockdowns will be able to apply for special consideration if their oral or performance exam, or major project, was impacted by COVID.

Under the New South Wales COVID-19 special consideration program, students’ work must have suffered as a direct result of the pandemic restrictions, although “detailed evidence for students who have been impacted by Level 4 restrictions will not be required”.

Victoria provided students with similar special consideration in 2020 to avoid adverse impacts of COVID reflecting in ATAR rankings as “part of a wide-ranging process to ensure fair and accurate results in this unprecedented year of school”.

Special consideration will also apply to Victorian senior students this year.

We interviewed ten year 12 teachers in Victoria to find out their experiences with assessment policies during lockdown in 2020. Our early findings show the teachers struggled to provide valid assessment outcomes while abiding by their duty of care, following school procedures, and protecting student privacy in the digital context.

How Victoria did it

In August 2020, Victoria introduced a new consideration of educational disadvantage process to take into account the impacts of lockdown on student learning that year. For scored assessments, the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority advised teachers “consider whether a student’s performance on one or more school-based assessment tasks has been affected”. The impact had “to be above that which may have been addressed through school-based strategies”.

Teachers had to essentially determine what a student’s expected score or grade would be if they had not been impacted by the pandemic or bushfires.

The teachers’ judgement was to be informed by a range of available evidence. This included a student statement about how they were affected over the course of the year. Students were not required to provide any evidence of hardship though the school had the right to ask for clarification.

Ethical issues with remote learning

Our study focused on ten teachers of VCE (Victorian Certificate of Education), which is the end of school certificate, equivalent of the HSC (High School Certificate) in NSW. The teachers came from different Victorian secondary schools — both government and independent. They taught subjects including English, maths, history, chemistry, arts and languages.

We asked about their experiences with assessment, including their contribution to the ongoing conversation on fair assessment in year 12 and their school’s relationship with the Victorian education department.

The new consideration of educational disadvantage process caused some complex ethical struggles. Teachers found it difficult to provide valid scores for assessments at school while also abiding by their duty of care to minimise the risk of mental and physical harm of students in a digital space.

One of the teachers, for instance, reluctantly ignored his student’s vaping during an online school assessment task:

I’m almost sure that I could see steam or something from like vaping […] I couldn’t prove it in a court of law, but I’m pretty sure it was nicotine or something similar, and that would never happen in a classroom […] so here is a question of duty of care […] if I had that kid in the class, then 100% I have a legal obligation to intervene and I’m responsible here, but in this case, he’s at home, I can’t prove it, other students see it and are affected by it, and I’m expected to assess this work […] how outrageous and impossible is that?

Reflecting on the new consideration of educational disadvantage process, another teacher said:

How are we supposed to evaluate the potential grade? And who am I to decide that x struggled more than y?

She admitted that in assessing students, she was relying on her “professional intuition” and ignoring the student statement document, which she said was a “sham”.

Some school procedures hindered valid assessment

Teachers also found it difficult to adhere to their school’s remote assessment policies, where they believed they prevented them from providing a fair assessment.

One teacher said:

The state government announced that it was up to the school leaders to decide whether they wanted to offer onsite essential assessments to VCE kids […] and our principal said NO and kept the school closed the whole time, which really pissed off a lot of teachers who wanted to run assessment in person to provide meaningful feedback […]

Another teacher highlighted issues of student cheating:

Our principal insisted on an online assessment [despite the fact that] students took screenshots of tests and iMessaged them around the cohort […] it was a disaster, we found out that more than 70% of our students had these images!

Protecting students’ privacy at the expense of learning

Some teachers described situations where their ethical obligation to protect student privacy conflicted with their ethical responsibility to provide accurate assessments.

One teacher, for example, said she was unable to provide “meaningful feedback” and follow ethical provisions of assessment when teaching students in an “off-camera” space intended to protect their privacy.

She was not sure whether her assessment feedback in class was helpful, considering she could not see the students’ responses.

The unfolding pandemic and environmental disasters such as the bushfires mean school closures will likely reoccur to varying degrees in the future.

Digital platforms for remote assessment and learning become central in these times. These platforms are creating complex ethical challenges of assessment that require, now more than ever, closer attention from educators, educational leaders and policymakers.

Author Bios: Ilana Finefter-Rosenbluh is a Lecturer, Faculty of Education, Carlo Perrotta is a Senior lecturer and Christine Grové is also a Senior Lecturer and Educational and Developmental Psychologist all at Monash University