Examination and Assessment

The following is an extract from my PhD thesis, part of a series I am publishing on this blog discussing the background of some contested territory in English curriculum.


Examination and Assessment

While our definitions of what the subject ‘English’ is have shifted over the years, it is worthwhile considering whether attitudes to examination and assessment have shifted as much, especially considering the reported impact of standardised exam-based assessment on the realised delivery of the intended curriculum and the construction of student identity (cf. Gale & Densmore, 2000; Kohn, 1999). The assessment and reporting of learning is one major way in which the school system retains power over the knowledge that students are deemed to have acquired (Foucault, 1977), in particular when ‘technicist’ forms of assessment such as traditional written exams are employed as these tend to “concentrate upon a narrow view of student achievement” (Marsh, 1997, p.56). In this final area of commonly contested territory I overview these broad ideas about the role of assessment and examination in the school system, as well as more specific thinking about the NSW curriculum landscape and about assessment in HSC English.

In a research project looking at the link between examinations and inequality in Australia in particular, Teese (2000) explores the ways in which choices about syllabuses and their examination result in increased social power for a privileged group that are more likely to gain academic success. The research project documented the way in which students with the “fewest family advantages entered schools with the fewest facilities and encountered the least experienced staff” (p.31) resulting in a low level of academic security for such students. Teese also argues the existence of a ‘curriculum hierarchy’, in which it is not just “any subjects that occupy the top levels of the curriculum, but those that give the greatest play to the economic power, cultural outlook and life-styles of the most educated populations” (p.197).

In the specific case of English, and of particular interest for research examining the NSW HSC English syllabus and its inclusion of a broader range of texts for study, Teese argues that the removal of canonical texts from the curriculum does not “free students from the cultural world in which Shakespeare was venerated” (p.45). Examination requirements themselves can also be seen as discriminating between “sophisticated” and “pedestrian” styles of written response (a phenomenon that is also explored in the work of Rosser, 2002), preferring responses that demonstrate not just a mastery of skills and content knowledge, but also showcase creativity and moral sensibility. Green makes a similar point in his discussion of the influence of postmodernism on advancing English teaching for critical consciousness and change, explaining that “the emergence of a more radically and socially-critical version of English teaching along these lines is still linked to particular, and arguably limited, understanding of culture and society” (Green, 1995, p.405).

Resources such as the OECD scenarios for future schooling discussed at the outset of this chapter provide one avenue for holistically pursuing curriculum change that is firmly embedded in a larger plan for system-wide change. Each of the six scenarios created by the OECD include description of four integral facets of schooling: ‘learning and organisation’; ‘management and governance’; ‘resources and infrastructure’; and ‘teachers’. Decisions relating to assessment in schooling fall under the area of learning and organisation, and systems where “curriculum and qualifications are central ideas of policy, and student assessments are key elements of accountability” (OECD, 2001, p.1) are described as part of the bureaucratic school system that forms the ‘status quo’ (scenario 1a). In this scenario the bureaucracy encourages uniformity, and is resistant to radical change – this is consistent with the findings of Green and Teese who identify curriculum hierarchies surrounding both content and assessment as barriers to realising change in the English curriculum.

While technicist forms of assessment such as traditional written examinations and mass standardised assessment are currently embedded in the educational landscape, diversity in student achievement is recognised through other discourses in assessment policy, for example in employing a distinction between summative and formative assessment. NSW curriculum and policy documents refer to these as ‘assessment of learning’, and ‘assessment for learning’ respectively and these terms are defined by the Curriculum Corporation:

Assessment of learning is assessment for accountability purposes, to determine a student’s level of performance on a specific task or at the conclusion of a unit of teaching and learning. The information gained from this kind of assessment is often used in reporting.

Assessment for learning, on the other hand, acknowledges that assessment should occur as a regular part of teaching and learning and that the information gained from assessment activities can be used to shape the teaching and learning process.
(Curriculum Corporation, website accessed May 18, 2006)

This distinction however, while shifting the focus of certain forms of assessment to acts of learning rather than accountability, does not address concerns about curriculum hierarchy, or of narrow (academic) visions for the aims of schooling.

Another important contribution to the field of assessment discourse is the notion of authentic learning, or authentic assessment. In exploring what implications this approach has to curriculum, Marsh explains that “authentic assessment encompasses far more than what students learn as measured by standardised tests or even by ordinary teacher-made tests. Authenticity arises from assessing what is most important, not from assessing what is most convenient.” (1997, p.56) Students who are learning in an environment of authenticity will undertake tasks that are more context-bound and more practical than formal exams, and which focus on challenging students by requiring analysis, integration of knowledge and invention (Darling-Hammond, Ancess, & Falk, 1995). Authentic assessment practices most closely align with the learning and organisation features of the OECDs scenario of ‘Re-schooling’, where more explicit attention is given to non-cognitive outcomes, and there is a strong emphasis on non-formal learning (scenario 2a) and quality norms replace regulatory approaches (scenario 2b). It also features in the first ‘De-schooling’ scenario (3a) where learning networks are focused on local community needs, however social inequalities are predicted in the second of these scenarios (3b) where the market determines a new educational hierarchy.

In NSW the Quality Teaching Framework is provided as a model for planning and reflecting on curriculum content choices and pedagogy. The framework, which was largely derived from the ‘Productive Pedagogies’ that were developed and implemented in Queensland as a result of longitudinal research on school reform, formally underpins teaching practice in NSW public schools by guiding teachers in the incorporation of a range of pedagogical elements in their ‘Quality Teaching’ practice by focussing on the intellectual quality in a lesson, the development of a quality learning environment, and the significance of the material learned to the lives of students. While the Quality Teaching Framework is presented as a guide to pedagogy, the implications for assessment are that although technicist forms of assessment are not precluded, pedagogic elements such as providing ‘problematic knowledge’, ‘engagement’, ‘student direction’, ‘cultural knowledge’, ‘inclusivity’ and ‘connectedness’ are more closely aligned with authentic assessment practices that flow from authentic, context-bound learning.

QTF table

Table: Dimensions and elements within the Quality Teaching Framework (NSW DET, 2003)


Such aims to provide a quality learning environment in NSW stand in stark contrast to accounts of high-stakes testing in international contexts. In an account of assessment in the context of the 1970s, Dixon explains that in the U.K. especially “the tradition…is for preparation for the specialised uses of language demanded by the examination to be fed back into the normal course…the examination itself begins to look quite normal, and English becomes a weird kind of game”, and he also quotes an observation made by Walter Loban at the 1966 Dartmouth Conference: “the curriculum in the secondary school inevitably shrinks to the boundaries of evaluation; if your evaluation is narrow and mechanical, this is what the curriculum will be” (Dixon, 1975, p.93).

In more recent research on English teachers’ rhetoric and practice, Bousted (2000) confirms that English teachers in the U.K. continue to view timed examinations as “[limiting] the opportunities for pupils to formulate a personal response to a literary text” (p.13). Teachers interviewed and observed for the study also argue that exam-based assessment had led to the adoption of poor pedagogical practices, such as rote learning and the concentration on a narrow range of curriculum content (p.14). Research by Darling-Hammond in the U.S. found that even when authentic assessment practices such as performance-based rather than standardised testing were employed, the continued use of assessment results to ‘sort students and sanction schools’ rather than to ‘support student-centred teaching’ resulted in the perpetuation of social inequity (Darling-Hammond, 1994, p.25).

Whether authentic learning and assessment, and a balance of assessment for and of learning is something that is realised in the NSW HSC English classroom to support student-centred teaching is one aspect of the curriculum explored later in this dissertation through analysis of the collected data. Recent research on Year 12 students in NSW by Ayres, Sawyer and Dinham (1999) suggests that high-stakes examinations do not inhibit best-practice teaching, as generating understanding of the subject remains teachers’ paramount concern. This research however only involved the observation and interview of teachers of high-achieving Year 12 students (those scoring in the top 1% of the state in particular subjects), therefore, while it may be concluded that effective teaching takes place in NSW despite the high-stakes assessment environment, it is essential to consider the effects of this environment on students who do not achieve as highly.

In relation to English specifically it is significant that an account of English examinations such as Dixon’s from over 30 years ago would still come close to accurately describing the current HSC English exam, in which students complete six questions over two written exams lasting two hours each:

The range of English activities covered by present methods of examining in the U.K. and the U.S. is extremely narrow: talk and listening is often simply excluded, and drama almost always omitted…literature is examined but the texts are not available, unseen poems may not be read aloud, an eighteen-year-old in the U.S. is given 20 minutes for a composition and in the U.K. three major essays are demanded in three hours. (Dixon, 1975, pp.92-93)

Concerns about assessment and examination therefore must be considered both in relation to their impact on pedagogy, and in terms of the adequacy of the actual examination methods utilised in realising the stated purposes of the English curriculum in the senior years of high school.

To conclude this section I return to Teese’s observations of the ways in which perceptions about the ideal student are shaped by the demands of the formal examinations they are required to take. Teese (2000) argues that formal exams in Australia have required students to ‘project an image…of the young scholar-intellectual’ (p.4) as “examiners have unfailingly demanded [academic] qualities [e.g. abstraction and concentration, sensitivity to form and structure, logical and retentive abilities, and maturity of perspective and argument], whatever the circumstances under which real students have learnt” (p.194). His findings also show a relationship between the image of the ideal student informing the nature of school examinations and attributes of higher socio-economic status, as “…elements of the scholarly disposition…are linked closely to an educated life-style and arise from the continuous and informal training given by families rather than explicit and methodical instruction in school” (p. 5). By interrogating ideals that are constructed in both public and professional discourses, the research in this thesis will reflect on the functions of schooling and possible futures that are implied in the current HSC English curriculum.



Ayres, P., Dinham, S., & Sawyer, W. (1999). Successful teaching in the NSW Higher School Certificate: Summary of a research report for the NSW Department of Education and Training. Sydney: NSW DET.

Bousted, M. (2000). Rhetoric and practice in English teaching. English in Education, 34(1), 12-23.

Curriculum Corporation. Assessment for learning: What is assessment for learning? Retrieved from http://cms.curriculum.edu.au/assessment/whatis.asp

Darling-Hammond, L. (1994). Performance-based assessment and educational equity. Harvard Educational Review, 64(1), 5-30.

Darling-Hammond, L., Ancess, J., & Falk, B. (1995). Authentic assessment in action. New York: Teachers College Press.

Dixon, J. (1975). Growth through English: Set in the perspective of the seventies. London: Oxford University Press.

Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison (A. Sheridan, Trans.). London: Penguin Books.

Gale, T., & Densmore, K. (2000). Just schooling: Explorations in the cultural politics of teaching. Buckingham, Philadelphia: Open University Press.

Green, B. (1995). Post-curriculum possibilities: English teaching, cultural politics, and the postmodern turn. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 27(4), 391-409.

Kohn, A. (1999). The schools our children deserve: Moving beyond traditional classrooms and ‘tougher standards’. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Marsh, C. J. (1997). Key concepts for understanding curriculum (A fully rev. and extended ed.). London: Falmer Press.

NSW DET. (2003). Quality teaching in NSW public schools: A classroom practice guide. Ryde: NSW Department of Education and Training Professional Support and Curriculum Directorate.

OECD. (2001). The OECD schooling scenarios in brief. Retrieved http://www.oecd.org/innovation/research/centreforeducationalresearchandinnovationceri-theoecdschoolingscenariosinbrief.htm

Rosser, G. (2002). Examining HSC English: Questions and answers. Change: Transformations in Education, 5(2), 91-109.

Teese, R. (2000). Academic success and social power: Examinations and inequality. Carlton South: Melbourne University Press.


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  1. English curriculum: Contested territory | Kelli McGraw

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