How the VCE works: Understanding Victoria's Year 12 ATAR system

Exactly how the mythical VCE works is a constant source of confusion for parents and students. Learn about Victoria's Year 12 ATAR system here

7 months ago   •   5 min read

By KIS Academics
Photo by Denise Jans / Unsplash

🏡 The Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE): What is it?

Exactly how the mythical VCE works is a constant source of confusion for parents and students - sometimes even for those currently undertaking VCE subjects. Hopefully all of the following information - explained for you by a VCE survivor! - will clarify the key points of confusion.

Basic Structure: How does it work?

The VCE consists of four units (1-4) which are undertaken across two years. These are generally Year 11 (Units 1 and 2) and Year 12 (Units 3 and 4), however subjects can be undertaken as accelerated courses of study. As a result, some students may undertake Units 1 and 2 of a subject in Year 10 and Units 3 and 4 of a subject in Year 11. While this is the most common form of acceleration, some schools allow units to be taken even in earlier school years. Note that, in some cases, it is possible to undertake Units 3 and 4 of a subject without having completed Units 1 and 2.

The VCE is structured around a study design that details all the content to be learned by students. This content is broken down into key Areas of Study. They are then tested in Outcomes (graded S/N -satisfactory or not-) in Units 1 and 2 and School Assessed Coursework (SACs, graded A+ to UG - ungraded) in Units 3 and 4, as well as final VCE exams at the end of all four units.

Final exams explicitly test only learning from Units 3 and 4, however content from Units 1 and 2 is assumed knowledge and therefore often necessary to complete exams. At the end of the process, students receive a Study Score out of 50 for each Units 3 and 4 subject undertaken, as well as an overall ATAR. Study scores are derived from SAC and exam marks, while the ATAR is derived from the study scores. Both of these forms of a student's final mark are rankings against the performance of other students.

ATAR vs. Study Score: Why are there two marks?

The ATAR is a national ranking - every Year 12 student across the country receives an ATAR. Scores are given out in 0.05 increments from 0.05 to 99.95.

Note a common misconception about the ATAR - it is not a percentage grade of how well a student performed during exams. As mentioned, it is a ranking. An ATAR of 85.50 does not mean a student scored 85.5% on their final exam, but rather that they are in the top 14.5% of the country. An ATAR scorer of 99.95 is in the top 0.05% of the country. This is also why it is impossible to score a 100 ATAR - that would require being in the top 0% (ie. better than everyone, including oneself) which makes no sense.

Meanwhile the Study Score is an internal mark - only students of the VCE receive one. Students in other states receive other internal marks based on their own internal system (eg. WACE, QCE). The study scores of a student are then used to calculate their ATAR so that that they can be compared nationally on an even scale.

Scaling and moderation: Why and how much?

You may have heard that students’ marks are moderated, scaled or otherwise changed at the end of Year 12. This seems quite unusual or frustrating to students, however there is a reason behind it.

Outcomes and SACs are created by each school individually and are graded by classroom teachers. As a result, they are not standardised across the state. The final exams are created and graded externally and are hence standardised.

As a result, students’ results on the final exams are used to modify their marks received on SACs during the year. This is designed to combat the inconsistency from ‘harsher’ or ‘nicer’ marking habits in individual classroom teachers across the state when grading SACs. Student SAC marks will be raised or lowered according to what they receive on the end of year exams. Study scores are also modified by scaling, whereby a student’s raw score is raised or lowered according to the perceived ‘difficulty’ of the subject. STEM subjects and languages tend to scale up whereas arts and humanities tend to scale down. There are some exceptions to this- eg. Music Performance and Literature, as arts/humanities subjects, still scale up. The exact number by which the study score is altered may shift from year to year as it is calculated based on the number of students who undertake the subject, the spread of student results / marks in the subject and the desirability of the subject as a whole. As a result, students receive both a raw and a scaled study score at the end of the year.

Requirements: Are there any prerequisites?

All VCE students must undertake at least one English-based subject (either English, English Language, Literature or English as an Additional Language). Beyond this, the remaining subjects contributing to the VCE are at the discretion of the student. At least four subjects, including the English-based one, must be undertaken.

A maximum of six subjects will contribute to the student’s ATAR. The ATAR is calculated by taking 100% of the study scores of four VCE subjects and 10% of the remaining two (if applicable) into account. If more than six subjects were undertaken, only the six highest will be taken into account and the rest will be discarded.

The GAT: What do you mean there’s an extra exam?

All VCE students undertaking Units 3 and 4 of a subject must also sit the General Achievement Test (GAT) in addition to their SACs and final exams. The GAT measures general knowledge and skills in written communication, maths, science, technology, humanities, arts and social sciences. It consists of two essays, each to be written in half an hour , as well as a two hour multiple choice section.

Marks from the GAT do not directly alter study scores but are rather used to assess a student's capabilities and thus check that their SAC and exam marks reflect this. Where there is large discrepancy between a student's SAC and exam marks, GAT results may be used to mediate the modification of SAC marks. If a student cannot sit final exams due to extenuating circumstances, the GAT results are used to create a Derived Score for exams.

Subjects Available

At the VCE level, there are over 90 different subjects on offer. These are spread across 9 Key Learning Areas:

Subject choices include:

  • 4 English subjects
  • 5 mathematics subjects
  • 5 science subjects
  • 10 arts subjects including 3 music, 3 performing arts and 3 visual arts subjects
  • 5 technology subjects
  • 17 humanities subjects including 8 history and 3 politics subjects
  • 5 business subjects
  • 3 health and physical education subjects
  • over 40 languages other than English

In Conclusion...

The VCE system can be quite complex, and understanding what's going on can be very daunting for new students and parents. If you ever need some assistance with VCE studies or subject specific help, KIS Academics tutors have a thorough understanding of their subjects and can assist in understanding curriculum requirements. Our tutors are able to provide materials and teaching on how to prepare for VCE assessments. Learn about our VCE tutoring and book a free study skills consultation with a KIS Academics tutor here.

Written by KIS Academics Tutor and State Consultant for Victoria (VCE), Elena Cruz. You can view Elena's profile here and request her as a tutor.

Disclaimer: KIS Academics is not affiliated with the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority (VCAA). For a more detailed overview of the VCE, please refer to VCAA materials.

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