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The difference between passing and learning

By Daniel Brass - posted Thursday, 23 December 2010

As the dust settles from the NSW HSC results released last Wednesday, students and the community should begin to think about these results' real meaning.

Academic scores are meaningful only if the process that produces them assesses attributes we value. In some subjects, assessment increasingly contradicts the aims identified in the syllabus and undermines the value of the exercise. HSC English is one such subject and it is particularly important because English marks will be included as twenty per cent of every university entrance score.

In its "Rationale", the NSW Board of Studies HSC English Syllabus says that the "[t]he study of English enables students to make sense of, and to enrich, their lives in personal, social and professional situations and to deal effectively with change. Students develop a strong sense of themselves as autonomous, reflective and creative learners".


This all sounds great but most HSC students will direct their study to meet the requirements of assessment, and the assessment does not examine these aspirational and sophisticated attributes.

For example, "speaking" is worth fifteen per-cent of the internal school assessment mark. Numerous schools test "speaking" by asking students to present a three-minute oral presentation on a given question with reference to three texts. It is nearly impossible to develop a considered and meaningful response dealing with a single text in this time; the notion that a year twelve student could do so with reference to three texts, all in three minutes, is plainly absurd. Such a task encourages lip-service to textual analysis and critical thinking while discouraging the use of those skills by rewarding superficial responses. It certainly does not stimulate students to "develop a strong sense of themselves as autonomous, reflective and creative learners".

In an effort to cram in as many words as possible in the limited time, students speak more quickly. This is almost always a bad thing in public speaking and therefore defeats the purpose of assessing an oral presentation at all, which is presumably "to enrich ... [students'] lives in personal, social and professional situations". What, then, is the purpose of this task?

Similarly, "writing", which should make up thirty per-cent of the school assessment mark, is often returned to students with the comment "more techniques needed" scrawled across the top, as though simply mentioning the word "alliteration", for example, will score a point. It would be comforting to think that teachers who write such comments are using a shorthand which they imagine their students will understand; that what they are really trying to say is that students need to think more about the mechanics of the language, about how words are having their effect: in other words, that they need to show an understanding beyond basic comprehension.

But in many cases, teachers' own thinking has surely been corrupted by a system that rewards a "paint by numbers" approach: an essay is worthless if it doesn't itemise twenty-five techniques and include at least twenty quotes, regardless of how the writer discusses them. It is a triumph of process over meaning.

The externally-marked HSC exams are little better. Because the syllabus dictates the frame for study of a given text (for example, Arthur Miller's The Crucible is taught as part of a unit on the theme "belonging"), the questions are predictably general. Most students are therefore urged by their teachers to memorise essays in advance and to copy them out in the exam with a few minor spontaneous changes to suit the question. Thus, the exam becomes a test of the ability to memorise essays, many of them probably plagiarised in one form or another, and then write them out quickly under pressure.


School teachers who disagree with this whole approach and urge their students to prepare ideas, arguments and evidence in advance, but to write the essay fresh in the exam, are then dismayed when those who memorise do better. Is this encouraging autonomy and creativity?

Assessment is a game always won by those who play it best. But those with a genuine love of English and a desire to encourage learning are effectively being disqualified by the automatons who have mastered the rules. First the syllabus and now, in response, the assessment process have evolved to discourage real engagement with anything much - whether the text is a literary classic, an advert, a website or a letter.

While debates about the purpose of English and its exalted position as the only compulsory HSC subject rage, surely everyone could agree that the current assessment process is almost devoid of meaning. Something must be done to make sure that assessment better reflects whatever attributes we would like HSC graduates to possess.

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About the Author

Daniel Brass has a PhD in English from the University of Sydney, has tutored high school English for ten years and is now studying medicine.

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