Ignoring the Middle of the Bell Curve: Media Coverage of the VCE Results

Today, the Victorian Year 12 results were released. As my sister has just completed Year 12, the whole family was up at 7am to receive the text message and – depending on the outcome – console or congratulate her.

As it turns out, no consolation was required. My sister received a score high enough to basically afford her the pick of any course she likes, and also placed her as the third highest achiever at her school. This is a very special occasion and one we were happy to celebrate. There would be many who would be happy with much less.

But if you read the media coverage of the result release each year, it would be easy to think that my sister was in the majority. The newspaper and TV stories every year like to talk about the high achievers, the ones who get the perfect score of 99.95 and cement their places in law and medicine degrees at the top universities. These students have obviously either worked very hard or been blessed with a great deal of natural ability – or both. If it’s anything like this year, the TV footage of students in the moment of discovering their results is actually shot in a selective entry school – so of course the results are likely to be somewhat skewed.

(View The Age and Channel 9’s coverage here.)

The scene isn't always this dramatic. Source: The Age
The scene isn’t always this dramatic. Source: The Age

But there is always a gaping hole in the coverage. Rarely do you read the story of the B-average student who worked hard, expected a score in the high 70s and ended up with 81. Or the student who struggled in the earlier years, picked up their game and achieved a score in the 60s or 70s that would have been unthinkable only a year or two before. Or the student who was never particularly academic and considered leaving before VCE, but stuck it out and is graduating with a certificate and good job prospects, without dreams of tertiary education.

The coverage of the Year 12 results is much like the VCE system itself; too heavily focussed on those in the upper echelon. The ATAR score reflects not the result of a year or six years at school, but how that student performed in one exam, on one day. And it really doesn’t even do that – it’s simply a ranking of how that student did in comparison to the rest of the cohort: if everyone performs well, your score can be brought down.

The system is flawed, but I’m no expert in educational policy. I am however, a student of the media. And I know that the media has the ability to frame conversations in the way they choose to present – or not present – information. The majority of VCE students will sit in the middle of the bell curve. So why can’t we hear about them?

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