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External beats internal

By Kevin Donnelly - posted Friday, 19 April 2013

The Queensland government is currently holding an inquiry into assessment methods related to senior mathematics, chemistry and physics. It's about time – primarily, because the assessment model used in Queensland is substandard, flawed and lacking in credibility.

In its promotional video detailing school-based assessment and moderation the Queensland Studies Authority boasts that its system is "unique". When it comes to Year 12 that is certainly true as every other system across Australia, except for the ACT, relies primarily on externally set and examined examinations in the final year of schooling.

The reasons why the other states, and the most successful overseas education systems as measured by international tests, prefer externally set examinations under supervised conditions is a simple one – the alternative involving school based moderation doesn't work.


The first problem in allowing senior school students to complete assessment tasks over time and outside the classroom, often with the help of parents or paid tutors, is that it leads to cheating.

While teachers might spend hours and hours trying to verify students' work to ensure it's genuine, the reality is that it is often impossible to tell who's responsible. That's aside from the fact that how do you draw the line between constructive outside help and somebody taking over and completing the student's work for them.

Associated with cheating is the time consuming nature of school-based assessment as instead of a 2 or 3 hour examination to prepare for students spend weeks and weeks drafting and completing projects and work requirements that leave little time for additional learning.

The second problem with moderation, a situation where groups of teachers across the state meet to try and ensure consistency of marking, is that it is impossible to guarantee that the grade or mark given to the work of one student is comparable to another.

Notwithstanding the claims by the Queensland Study Authority it is impossible to guarantee that a grade or mark given to a student's work in Cairns, Mt Isa or Brisbane is equivalent to a student living elsewhere in the state.

Compare that situation to externally set examinations where a group of markers meet together in one place over a set time with an agreed criteria for marking and regular feedback, involving statistical checks, to ensure consistency of marking.


Unlike the situation in Queensland, an added benefit of externally set and marked examinations is that all students are on a level playing field as they sit the same test under the same conditions and it is impossible to cheat as the test is supervised.

Compare that to the situation with school-based assessment and moderation where a wealthy, privileged student from a comfortable home has far more help and resources to draw on than a disadvantaged student from a poor background.

The fact that school-based moderation is costly, ineffective and educationally unsound explains why Victoria, after experimenting with such an approach during the early 90s, abandoned it in favour of the more traditional end of year, externally set and marked formal examinations.

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About the Author

Dr Kevin Donnelly is a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Catholic University and he recently co-chaired the review of the Australian national curriculum. He can be contacted at He is author of Australia’s Education Revolution: How Kevin Rudd Won and Lost the Education Wars available to purchase at

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