To create our league tables, we look at the number of top results – otherwise known as band 6s, or marks over 90 – as a proportion of schools’ HSC entries.

It’s far from comprehensive, but it’s the only school-based data we are allowed to have. Authorities clamped down on HSC reporting after the “Class We Failed” scandal of the late 1990s, when The Daily Telegraph wrote about the low results of a single class at a western Sydney high school.

Sydney Grammar School, a high-fee, selective school, consistently finishes in the top 10 in NSW.

Sydney Grammar School, a high-fee, selective school, consistently finishes in the top 10 in NSW.Credit:Michele Mossop

But we acknowledge that band 6 is a limited metric, and that it would be in the interests of students, schools and parents to discuss a better approach.

The band system was implemented in 2001 to give meaning to the Higher School Certificate credential. Rather than just getting a mark, the student would leave secondary school with something that described what they could do. The descriptors were numbered from one to six.

It was never intended that a band 6 in, say, physics would be equivalent to one in English. But hardly anyone understands that, and even though band 6s are part of a secondary exit credential that has no practical application after schooling – it is separate to, and calculated differently from, the tertiary entrance rank – they have become a chief focus.

“I’d say that bands are spoken about more, rather than a person’s ATAR,” says Emily Cox, a year 12 student.

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This has caused problems. It puts all the attention on selective and high-fee schools, which are attended by the brightest and most advantaged kids.

It provides no way to acknowledge student improvement or to publicly celebrate the disadvantaged schools that have taken kids who were barely literate in year 7 and helped them to achieve band 4s and 5s.

Nor is there any way to acknowledge schools that have taken kids from disadvantaged communities and helped them become the first person in their family to go to university.

It’s also an open secret that some image-conscious schools “game the system” by encouraging students to choose an easier subject than they are capable of studying to improve their chances of achieving a band 6 and thereby making the school’s results look better.

“Band 6 totals are a game, and all schools play it to some extent because you are limited by media coverage and parent expectation,” says former Shore headmaster Timothy Wright.

That serves the student poorly, especially if they aspire to a university course that requires a higher level of maths or science than they have studied during the HSC.

One way to dilute the focus on band 6s when it comes to public reporting, and still celebrate those top achievers, would be to provide more data.

We could look to other systems as a model for that. Victoria publishes each school’s average Victorian Certificate of Education results, its post-school pathways – whether they are studying, working or unemployed a year after graduating – and the year 12 completion rates, as well as celebrating top achievers and school awards.

Perhaps NSW could also look at publishing ranges of scores, or each school’s proportion of band 5s and 4s. It could consider developing an improvement metric for the HSC that’s similar to NAPLAN, perhaps for the 20 per cent of schools with the greatest progress. Those metrics are already used internally by the NSW Department of Education.

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The use of data in education has come a long way over the past 20 years. We can use those lessons to develop a system that better serves students, teachers and parents.

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