Frequently Asked Questions

What is standards-referenced assessment?

Student performance in the Higher School Certificate examinations is reported in relation to defined standards (or levels of achievement) using performance bands that have been developed for each course. For 2 Unit courses students receive a mark out of 100 and a place within one of the six performance bands. For Extension courses students receive a mark out of 50 and a place within one of four performance bands.

What are HSC performance bands?

For each course, performance bands indicate levels of achievement demonstrated by students. The performance band description gives meaning to a Higher School Certificate mark by summarising the knowledge and skills typically demonstrated by students whose mark placed them in that performance band. There is no statement corresponding to Band 1, which is considered to be below the minimum standard expected.

HSC marks for non-Extension courses are divided into 6 bands:

  • Band 6 = 90 - 100 marks
  • Band 5 = 80 - 89 marks
  • Band 4 = 70 - 79 marks
  • Band 3 = 60 - 69 marks
  • Band 2 = 50 - 59 marks
  • Band 1 = 0 - 49 marks

For a 2-Unit course, Band 6 indicates the highest level of performance. The minimum standard expected for a course is 50. Band 1 indicates that a student has not met enough of the course outcomes for a description to be made, as performance is considered to be below the minimum standard expected. There is no pre-determined distribution of students to particular bands.

Each Extension course is divided into 4 bands:

  • Band E4 = 45 - 50 marks
  • Band E3 = 35 - 44 marks
  • Band E2 = 25 - 34 marks
  • Band E1 = 0 - 24 marks

How are the standards set and maintained?

1. A team of experienced teachers work as ‘judges’ to individually study standards material relevant to the examination. Each judge uses the materials to develop an understanding of the knowledge and skills typically possessed by students on the borderline between two bands. The judges individually estimate the mark they believe a borderline student would receive for each question and component. Each judge’s marks are added up to give that judge’s cut-off marks between bands for the whole paper. The average borderline mark for each band cut-off is calculated.

2. The judges meet to discuss and, if necessary, modify their decisions.

3. The judges consider a sample of student responses that have been awarded marks close to the cut-off marks already calculated. They review these responses to satisfy themselves that the performance they demonstrate is typical for the borderline between bands. They can view other responses to help them decide whether the cut-off marks need to be changed.

4. The judges’ recommendations are reviewed by the Board of Studies NSW’s Consultative Committee to determine whether the judges have maintained the standards for the course. The Consultative Committee either accepts the judges’ recommended cut-off marks or adjusts them.

5. The cut-off marks approved by the Consultative Committee are applied to the examination. A simple formula sets the cut-off marks to the band borderline marks of 50, 60, 70, 80 and 90 shown on the performance scale.

More detailed information can be found at:

Are optional questions always of equal difficulty?

Optional questions and marking guidelines are designed to be of similar difficulty. There is a statistical procedure in place to ensure that students are not advantaged or disadvantaged by selecting one option over another.

Is there a fixed proportion of students for each performance band?

The proportion of students in each performance band is not pre-determined. Standards-referenced assessment awards students a particular band if they demonstrate that they have reached the performance standard described in that band. Although the actual cut-off marks may vary from year to year, the standards used to report student achievement will not vary. It is therefore possible to compare the performances of students who have sat for the examinations in different years. It is not appropriate to compare student performance across different courses.

How are student responses selected to demonstrate the standards?

A team of experienced teachers select student responses that clearly illustrate the borderline standard between each of the bands. It is important to note that:

  • the samples of student responses at each band cut-off are typical of the standard of work produced by students on the borderline between two performance bands. They are not exemplary responses, nor are they typical of all responses for those bands.
  • where the examination has optional questions, the optional question included is usually the one with a large number of student responses. For some courses, samples of options are included. The selection of options should not be seen as suggesting that schools change the options they currently teach, or that students would receive any advantage by studying these options.

What is standards material?

The standards material consists of samples of student responses produced under previous Higher School Certificate examination conditions that a team of teachers considered clearly illustrate the relevant standard.

Who uses standards material?

Standards material is publicly available so that teachers, students and others can develop a clear understanding of the standards for each course and the standard of work typically produced by students at the band cut-off points. An understanding of why these samples were typical of work by students placed at the borderline between the two bands can be developed by:

  • reading the corresponding band descriptions
  • looking at the questions
  • studying the students' actual responses and the teacher annotations (where provided).

Standards material is also used by teams of Higher School Certificate judges who determine what examination marks will represent the borderlines between the performance bands for the current HSC examinations. Standards material allows the judges to apply the same standards that were used in previous years.

When is standards material updated?

Standards material for use in judging is updated if there is a significant change in a course. This occurs when:

  • the structure of the examination has a significant change
  • the content in a syllabus has a significant change
  • the performance band descriptions (the required standards) change.

Changes to the prescribed texts for a course do not usually require an update of standards material.

Why have these student responses been placed on the ARC website?

The student responses have been placed on this website:

  • to give teachers, students and others an understanding of the standard of responses typical for students at the borderline between bands
  • to give an understanding of exemplary responses and the quality of work that a student would need to produce in order to obtain full marks for a question
  • to provide future teams of judges with authentic samples showing the standards they need to apply to determine examination marks for the borderlines between the performance bands.

Why aren't all samples of student work from recent examinations?

Although the content of the examination and the prescribed texts for a course may change, the performance band descriptions (and hence the standards) for that course remain the same. Teachers, students and others can use all samples of student work that are on the ARC website as valid examples of student responses that represent different points in the standards.

Why aren't student responses available for all options?

Where the examination paper has optional questions, the optional questions selected to align student responses to the performance bands for a course are often the ones with a large number of student responses. For some courses, responses from different options are included. (The selection of options should not be seen as suggesting that schools change the options they currently teach, or that students would receive any advantage by studying these options.)

Who wrote the annotations?

Brief annotations have been written by a team of experienced teachers who have taught the relevant Higher School Certificate course.

Do all samples have annotations?

Annotations are provided only for extended responses, and not all responses are annotated. A selection of responses for the band borderline between Bands 5 and 6, Bands 4 and 5, and Bands 3 and 4 have been annotated.

What other resources containing student work responses are available?

Student Answer books have been produced for some Higher School Certificate courses. These contain samples of student responses with comments and study tips. The Young Writers Showcase also contains a selection of English Extension 2 major works. These books can be purchased from eBos shop online on the Board of Studies NSW website.

What are the differences between mid-band, borderline and exemplary student responses?

Performance bands describe the qualities of typical achievement of students in each band. Borderline samples are student responses that are on the border between two performance bands. In some small-candidature courses, responses shown are high-, low- or mid-band responses, rather than borderline responses. An exemplary response is one that has received full marks. It should be noted that often there are a number of ways that a student could respond and still produce an exemplary or borderline response. Exemplary responses may not be perfect but demonstrate a very high standard of response completed under examination conditions. All student responses need to be read in conjunction with the marking guidelines and the performance band descriptions for the course.