Competition heats up for OC places as more than 15,000 sit test

A mix of nervousness and excitement flooded over nine-year-old Priya Vivek as she walked into the exam room to sit the test for a place in one of the coveted opportunity classes for gifted students.

“I couldn’t eat at all before,I was so nervous,” Priya said,a year 4 student at Ashfield Public School. “The hardest part was the maths because there were so many equations and I got confused with some of them. The reading part was the easiest.”

She is one of more than 15,000 primary school students who took part in Thursday’s opportunity class test to try and secure one of 1840 places in year 5 and 6 opportunity classes for 2023.

Year 4 Ashfield Public School students Priya Vivek,Arlo Lewis,Serena Attanasio and Minh Nguyen. The students took the opportunity class test on Thursday.

Year 4 Ashfield Public School students Priya Vivek,Arlo Lewis,Serena Attanasio and Minh Nguyen. The students took the opportunity class test on Thursday.Dean Sewell

Demand for prized OC spots has surged in the past five years,with the number of applications jumping by 30 per cent,up from about 11,800 applying in 2017.

It is the second year that students have sat a revamped selective schools entry test which was introduced last year with a new providerafter a 2018 department review found a disproportionate emphasis on maths ability in the old test,with boys performing better in those questions.

The admission process had another major shake-up earlier this month with a decision to set aside up to 20 per cent of places from next year at selective schools and opportunity classes for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. It followed findings from the review that revealed there were fewer applications from students from low socio-economic backgrounds,Aboriginal students,those with a disability and students from rural and remote areas.

Serena Attanasio,9,said doing a handful of sample tests in the weeks leading up to Thursday’s exam helped her feel more confident. “Some questions were challenging ... the maths sums and equations were hard,and the thinking skills was hard too. Reading was sort of easy,” she said.

Students sat three exams:a 30-minute reading test,a 40-minute mathematical reasoning test and a 30-minute thinking skills test. All questions were multiple choice.

Arlo Lewis,9,who did a few weeks of tutoring leading up to the exam,said that although he felt “worried and nervous” before taking the test the thinking skills component was “surprisingly easy.” He felt there was enough time to finish all sections.

“Maths was the easiest and reading was the hardest. For reading,there were a lot of weird words and I didn’t really understand some of them,” he said.

Despite plans to bring the test online from 2021,the tests will remain paper-based next year with no clear timing on when the shift to computer-based tests will go ahead.

Chief executive of the Australian Tutoring Association Mohan Dhall said most tutoring businesses were finding it more difficult to coach for the critical thinking skills component of the exam.

“Tutoring businesses will continue to be commercially successful,but frequently the teaching isn’t aligning with the needs of the kids,” he said.

“Heavily tutored kids aren’t taught how to think critically in their coaching,rather they learn step-by-step processes to solve problems that they have already seen in past tests. So,when they are exposed to something novel it’s a surprise and can be difficult.”

One in seven Australian students will be tutored at some point during their school years,Dhall said,but in urban areas and places close to selective high schools that can be as high as 50 per cent.

“Students are often so focused on being right they don’t learn how to think through questions.”

Jae Jung,a senior lecturer in the University of NSW’s school of education and a gifted education researcher,said setting aside 20 per cent of places for disadvantaged students was “a step in the right direction”.

He said the revamped test was designed to “pitch the difficulty so it’s more suited to the ability of the students and less easy to be heavily coached for”.

“The test is designed to discourage coaching. There are certain families that can’t afford this,and it is critical to try and even out the disparities.”

He said shifting the test to online will improve access to students in regional and rural areas who don’t have ready transport to test centres.

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Lucy Carroll is education editor of The Sydney Morning Herald. She was previously a health reporter.

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