Archive for category HSC

Slaves to the Grade

It’s that time of year. Teachers of Year 12 around Australia are scrambling to varying degrees to prepare students for final assessments and exams, which inevitably involves a whole lotta marking.

Of course, all teachers have to grade student work. And they are engaged in doing this all year. But nothing beats the pedal-to-the-metal feeling of marking Year 12 practice tasks in a last ditch effort to refine their examination responses.

In particular, nothing beats the hellish pressure that exists in states like NSW and Victoria where the HSC and VCE exams respectively loom over teachers and students alike. And out of all these teachers and students, I argue that subjects that are writing-intensive (e.g. English and History) have it the toughest; if you have a class of 25 for Year 12 and it’s coming up to an assessment, teachers in these subjects are spending their nights and weekends correcting pages and pages and pages of long form expositions.

Which can leave your eyes (and soul) feeling kinda like this:

bill crying blood

I was prompted to write this blog post after watching my friends Justin and Alex tweet about their marking yesterday:

twitter convo 24.08.2013 HSC marking

I’ve taught for the HSC three times and this slavish marking routine is the only part I do not miss…having said that, the jolly task I have now of marking as a university lecturer has involved marking binges that certainly rival the pain of HSC workload.

The question is – what can we do about it?

Is there anything we can do about it?

Some ideas that I threw out into the twittersphere yesterday seem promising, but without a class to try them on I’m at a loss, not sure if they would work. The ideas I bounced around with Justin and Alex were:

  1. Focussing on writing just the introduction, or a body paragraph. This would make the task smaller and more focussed for students, and more manageable to mark 25-30 of them.
  2. Setting a paragraph writing challenge. To address Justin’s problem of the student that only writes about ‘tone’, each week set a different language feature/form for students to write a paragraph on. By the end of the term they will have a bank of paragraphs on different elements.
  3. Gamify the writing process. This could be done by putting students in groups, getting every student to write a paragraph (or essay), then each group submits it’s best one (as judged by the students in the group) for marking. This means you only have to mark one essay/paragraph per group, not per student. Keep a chart of which group wins each week and award them a prize at the end of the unit. Change the groups around for each new unit.
  4. Peer assessment. This can only be used in a limited way, as students don’t have the capacity to grade work to a Year 12 standard. However you could use the ‘medals (feedback) and missions (feedforward)’ framework that Bianca draws on to give students a direction. I think the main benefit is that they read each other’s work and discuss their strengths, not that they actually give each other a ‘grade’.
  5. Find an authentic audience. Partnering up with another teacher/class would provide an avenue for students to share their work with another class on a platform such as a wiki. This would give students someone to perform for besides their own teacher, which could prove motivating. The teachers could also arrange to do a marking-swap, and grade each other’s student essays…this may get you writing less comments, marking more objectively (?) and just plain old provide a change of pace as you get to read a different set of handwriting!

I really hope these ideas are useful to someone out there.

If you have any other good ideas for getting feedback to students without going through so much of the eye-bleedingly painful million-essay marking process, I would LOVE to hear them!

Thanks to Justin and Alex for inspiring this post and helping me brainstorm ideas 🙂


Images: Cropped screen still from True Blood, Season 5; Screen shot of conversation on

Postscript: If you liked this post, you may also like the post Matt Esterman wrote today, ‘The home stretch for Year 12’. Looks like we all have Year 12 on the brain this weekend!

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Evaluating the HSC: An interview

Last year I was interviewed by Melissa Wilson, a Journalism student from the University of Newcastle, about my views on the Higher School Certificate (HSC).

Melissa was in contact again recently, and this prompted me to ask if I could reproduce the interview here on my blog. She kindly obliged, and so here it is!

I was careful to read back over my answers, to make sure I still felt the same way about these issues. I do. I wish I could say that things were vastly different up here in Queensland. They’re not. When a Queenslander tells you there is no external exam for Year 12 in their state, they’re misleading you at best. Here is a bit of information from the QSA website about the Queensland Core Skills (QCS) test:

Preparing for the test

The Common Curriculum Elements are generic skills that students work with across their subjects; therefore the real preparation for the test goes on all the time and in every subject. The QSA also makes available a variety of test preparation resources, including Retrospectives and past testpapers (see QCS Test publications and Retrospectives and MC response sheets). Most schools provide some focused preparation for the test.

Hmm, sounds familiar.

But, I digress…

Here are my responses to the interview by Melissa Wilson:

Interview answers for Melissa Wilson (University of Newcastle, 2011)
Interviewee: Kelli McGraw (Lecturer, QUT)

  • How do you feel about how the HSC is structured in 2011?

When I think about the HSC structure in 2011, the main things that leap to mind are the fact that studying English is mandatory, that half of the student assessment is based on a timetabled external examinations, and that a no more than of 30% of your school assessment is supposed to be ‘exam-type’. I think it’s really important for English to remain compulsory right up to the end of school, but I’d like to see more room for students to choose electives within the course, not just different levels i.e. Standard or Advanced English. At the moment I think the HSC is still structured in a way that is too rigid for students to feel like they have a lot of choice over their learning.

  • Many people say that the HSC is focused on teaching students a whole lot of information that isn’t exactly relevant to them later in life – but instead they just regurgitate it in an exam and then discard it – how do you feel about that statement?

Personally, I can think of countless things that I learned in my HSC year (1998). In those days the emphasis on exams was just as great, but I am often surprised by the things I remember from senior high school and have found a lot of what I learned to be very relevant in life. Having to finish ‘major works’ for Visual Art and Drama also taught me valuable lessons about project management and self-directed learning, which I didn’t get from participating in written exams, so in that sense I guess I was lucky to be an ‘art-sy’ student.
I think the real problem with exams is not that students have to cram ‘irrelevant’ information – I think that all learning can be made relevant, depending on what you choose to do in life. The problem I find is that the examination system has too much of an effect on what happens inside the classroom. The constant pressure to cover content is a strain on students and teachers, and even though school-based assessment is supposed to involve deep learning and reflection, many schools I know of set far more than 30% of their assessments in an exam style in order to condition students in preparation for the external exam. So I think there is a ‘hidden curriculum’ in the HSC, which can dilute learning experiences based on the official subject syllabuses.

  • And from this, what would you personally change about the HSC? 

I think that the only assessment that students should have to do under exam conditions is the Trial. If more student work was assessed through project work, or using collaborative group tasks, or using portfolios, I think that students would feel more connected to the learning, and be motivated to achieve. Even though the HSC now uses criteria-based assessment, students are acutely aware that the HSC places them in competition with one another as in-class assessment ranks still play a role in determining a student’s final subject results, and the year culminates for most students in receiving a ranked national placement through the UAI. With only about 30% of students moving from school to university after Year 12, it seems like we compromise a lot of educational values for the sake of a privileged minority.

  • How do you feel about the pressure and emotional stress that students endure throughout their HSC?

When I think about the stories that students have told me over the years – about how they feel inadequate, or like a failure in the face of HSC assessment tasks – it makes me really upset. I have seen a lot of students in Year 12 lose a lot of weight, with girls in particular showing signs of early and advanced eating disorders. Senior school is also a time when increased numbers of students pick up casual and part-time employment, in many cases out of a necessity to contribute to household finances. I think the HSC creates an environment where students are given too many adult responsibilities without being given the corresponding rights.

While schools play a vital role in developing students’ resilience and capacity for work, the emotional stress endured during the HSC year is too much, in my opinion. I read a study awhile back where Year 11 and 12 students reported symptoms of anxiety, depression and stress that fell outside the ‘normal’ range. We know that when this happens, students stop focussing on ‘mastering’ the material, instead focussing on performance; they stop believing in themselves, stop seeing the learning as a worthwhile goal, and switch to performance-oriented goals. Some of my own school friends took years to recover from the emotional damage of the HSC year, especially those whose final results didn’t meet expectations.

Good riddance to my English notes.

Good riddance to my English notes. Flickr image by Jean-Rene Vauzelle CC-BY-2.0

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Storify – ACARA Senior English subject drafts #ozengchat

On 19th June I shared the role of leader/discussant with @vivimat in the 8.30-9.30pm Tuesday #ozengchat stream that takes place on Twitter.

The topic: the draft Senior English subjects proposed by ACARA.

You can check out the ‘Storify’ made by Vivian to see all of the tweets from the discussion that night collected in one place:

If you haven’t yet found where to download the draft curriculum documents from, here is the URL:

Consultation on these documents ends on 20th July, 2012 (THAT’S SOON!) You can contact your professional association to ask if you can add comments to their response, or lodge your own response at the ACARA consultation website: (you will need to register first).

Some interesting comments made during the #ozengchat were:

  • That an ‘English Literature’ (EL) course would flow nicely into university study
  • That the EL course did not look significantly more difficult than the ‘English’ (E) course
  • That the assumption is that in NSW, the current Standard course aligns with ‘English’ while the current Advanced course aligns with ‘English Literature’ – but this is not at all the case
  • That bridging the gap between Year 10 and Year 11 & 12 needs a stronger focus
  • That the proposal to organise Senior English into semester-long units seems to align with what currently happens in Western Australia…but we’re not sure where else (?)
  • That the local state/territory bodies would still be responsible for assessment and examination; i.e. many did not realise that the NSW BOS would still be responsible for setting the HSC reading list
  • That English Studies as exists in NSW (non-ATAR course) filled a big gap – the hope is that ‘Essential English’ (EE) turns out to be like English Studies (or English Communication, a similar course in QLD)
  • That English would likely remain mandatory in NSW, and people wondered why it was not so in other states/territories

There is so much more to talk about when it comes to the proposed Senior English subjects!

I hope to have a new post up soon with some of my personal thoughts about the drafts. In the meantime, if you’ve been thinking about (or wondering about) the curriculum ACARA has proposed, drop a comment here – let’s chat about it!

[View the story “#ozengchat for June 19th 2012” on Storify]

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Guest Post: ‘I Have A Dream that the HSC Will End’

  • Post to celebrate completion of my PhD: CHECK.
  • Post with an update on my upcoming conference papers: CHECK.

So…where to next?

As fate had it, this decision was made for me, with the arrival of a piece of student writing in my inbox.

The author of the piece is a recently graduated HSC student, one whom I had the pleasure of teaching year 8 English, and coaching for debating 🙂  This is him counting down the days until the end of his exams:

I invite you to read his work (below), which he has given me permission to reproduce (along with his picture) in this post.  Oriniginally published as a Facebook post on October 28th, it is a re-writing of Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous I Have a Dream speech, which has been adapted to make a satirical commentary on the HSC.  It comes with a mild language warning (c’mon; it’s satire!), and is a brilliant example of a ‘textual intervention’.

I’m very proud to feature it here  as my first ‘guest post’!:


I Have A Dream that the HSC Will End

By B. Wylie

I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our state.

Two score years ago, an a*shole bureaucrat, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, created the Higher School Certificate. This momentous decree came as a great source of pain and suffering to millions of NSW students who were about to be seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a sorrowful dusk which signalled the beginning of their long night of academic captivity.

But fourty four years later, the student still is not free. Fourty four years later, the life of the student is still sadly crippled by the manacles of standardised testing and the chains of rankings. Fourty four years later, the student lives on a lonely island of studying in the midst of a vast ocean of facebook updates. Fourty four years later, the student is still languished in the rooms of NSW high schools and finds himself an exile in his own class. And so we’ve come here today to dramatise a shameful condition.

In a sense we’ve come to this facebook note to cash a check. Read the rest of this entry »

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The HSC again. and again.

In NSW yesterday Year 12 school leavers got their HSC results back.  And again, we reflect.

so-and-so got x amount of Band 6s this year…should I teach more like them?

my kids didn’t go as well as they had hoped…did I fail them?

there were some great successes at our school…what pressures will this bring next year?

The dizzying heights…the devastating lows.

I’m sure this post / these tweets should have some ‘IMHO’s peppered through them, but stuff it – the HSC is an evil device.

I’m so proud of every HSC student who got through the year, and was beyond excited for my ex-students who got the results they sought (I always will be).  Motivation, goals, mastery, achievement, I believe in them all.  But the HSC provides them too sparingly, for students and their teachers.

And now it’s time for recovery. again.

Congratulations one and all – bring on 2011…

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HSC English

For anyone wondering how Year 12 HSC students in NSW feel about high stakes external exams as a measure of their learning in English this year:

Sorry, I can’t confirm which school it came from…

(PS: Good luck studying for Paper 2 my dears!)

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HSC English: Standard or Advanced?

Does your school offer both Standard and Advanced English courses for the HSC?  How about ESL? Extension courses?  If not – why not?

This is a question that has been debated over the past couple of days via email between members of the NSW English Teachers’ Association.

One member asked: Do you think it is wise to only offer the Advanced course to students? His school leaders have been advised that this will lead to higher ATAR scores for students at the school.

Here are some of the responses that were given via email in support of offering a diverse range of courses:

“The emotional pressure on students to learn (=compete and achieve) at an Advanced level was very detrimental in the schools I observed [that had decided to take away the option for Standard English].  Students’ self concept was very low for the bottom achievers in the Advanced stream, where in schools that also run Standard these kids might still perform lower, but they do so with the knowledge that they are in a different, less ‘academic’ course.  Or, they find themselves at the top of the Standard course, and their self concept goes up.  Offering Advanced-only also limits your capacity to differentiate learning for students, and it builds a distorted sense of entitlement and expectation among parents.”

“I have been discouraging some students who want to do Advanced.  Last year when I arrived there seenmed to be some students who really should have taken Standard.  Advanced can be soul destroying for them and can impede the progress of others.”

“I was also put under pressure [to increase] value-added – they argue that it is better for everyone to do Advanced because scaling boosts poor Advanced marks above good Standard marks and there may be an infinitesimally better uni ranking as a result. Whether this is actually the case or not is difficult to accurately gauge – there seems to be a lot of numerical flim-flam in the value-adding business. What is clear, however, is that students who struggle in Advanced and then withdraw from discussions and activities they feel are beyond them engage much more readily in Standard classes and find themselves enjoying English – heaven forfend!”

“I remember this type of pressure being applied at a previous school of mine – with the result of good Standard students being forced to do Advanced.  That type of auditor-driven statistical analysis does not take into account the different kind of intellectual demands required to be a success in Advanced.  At my current school, we have scaled back our Advanced classes because there were a number of students who were not suited to the contextual and researching demands of the Advanced syllabus – they were also not motivated readers”

Comments like these about student welfare were reinforced by teachers who had marked HSC English scripts and saw the outcome at the other end:

“Anyone who has marked Advanced will know there are many students out there who really should not have sat the course and would have been better off in Standard, where they would have had a much better opportunity to show what they knew and understood.”

“From the point of view of Advanced HSC marking, as many of you will have experienced, it is becoming more frequent to see that “poor child” who should have been advised to do Standard, often in the middle of a bundle of very competent students.”

Some teachers were in favour of pushing the Advanced course, and gave a mixture of pedagogical and statistical reasons for this:

“There is an ongoing debate about this in schools around mine. The pressure in schools is to achieve better than state mean and this can be easily achieved by encouraging students to do Standard rather than Advanced… I believe this is anti educational and think any student who is interested should have the opportunity to do the more interesting and challenging Advanced course. In terms of value added, this does us no favours [to push students into the Standard course]. Have a look at the difference in the curves for Advanced and Standard on the value added graph. Again I could easily make the actual course results look better by encouraging more students to do Standard and indeed have at times been pressured to do so. If you run the Advanced students against the overall English Value Added curve you get a different picture, however.”

“Our students do seem to get a strong sense of achievement from doing Advanced and actually engage well with texts which have not much relationship to their lives and experience. I agree that the Standard course is difficult since it is so language based and that is what students have trouble with…We don’t not offer Standard because it is too easy, but because our students can and do gain a great deal from the Advanced course and they value it. Or is it their parents? It just seems a pity that it is much more difficult to get very high marks in Standard than Advanced but it is historic. Remember why we brought in the common strand in the first place?”

Other teachers had arguments that spoke to the benefits of or need for the Standard course:

“What we have done is to present the challenges of the Advanced course to Year 10, outlining exactly the demands.  We have also challenged Advanced students in Year 11 to consider seriously the demands of the course.  This has meant many more “borderline” students have chosen Standard, either at the end of Year 10 or the end of the Preliminary course.  As a result, we have had excellent Standard results from students who either deliberately chose to do Standard, or changed at the end of Preliminary when they struggled in the Advanced.  The end result in those cases were very happy students and parents.”

“We certainly could not omit Standard from our curriculum, and fortunately, we are also able to maintain a more academic focus by running one advanced class. I hope that by doing that, we are meeting the diverse learning needs of the type of students who attend a school such as ours. I know this is not the same issue – but spare a thought for the large number of country schools who are struggling to offer courses and to do that, both Standard and Advanced are offered in the same room, sometimes with both 11 and 12 together as well. That is the only way their wide range of learning needs (for just a small number) can be met – either that, or Advanced is not offered at all.”

The role of school administrators in balancing the need for high results against student welfare and quality learning was also raised:

“Perhaps some school administrators need to be reminded of such determiners for course choice as “needs, interests and abilities of students”- not to mention their health and well-being. When there is a significant percentage of boarders these factors are particularly critical.”

“I think the whole debate is disgusting because no-one is talking about what we think students should know; i.e. education. Instead the whole debate seems to be about what puts the school in a better light statistically. Let’s worry about what our students should learn and where they are at, not what looks better for our school. How has this abominable shift in what teachers are thinking happened? Well we all know the answer to that: and the answer is not the National Curriculum.”

“It has been interesting to see two distinct problems emerge from this question and also dispiriting that in both cases it is all about perceived numerical and statistical success, with anti-educational ‘solutions’ imposed on English faculties from above.”

The debate itself was in fact surprising to some:

“Coming from an area of the state that is maybe too far in the bush, I have never realised that this would be an issue. I know that some schools, for very good reasons such as being selective, have none or very few Standard students, and that is just a given, but I would have thought that the majority of schools in the state would not fall into that category. I guess that might be blissful lack of knowledge or awareness on my part!”

I’d (we all!) be interested to hear how other schools and English faculties are approaching this question.

When I put the question out to Twitter this afternoon, this is what tweeple had to say:

“I think English should be an elective course. If they haven’t got it by year 10 why go further?”

“Really? [that not all states have mandatory English] so only NSW is dumb enough to think senior english is for all.”

“I think students should be allowed to go with what interests them – as long as they understand the possible implications 4 ATAR”

“NO! [to only offering Advanced]…particularly for gender focused classes, does the fact 45 marks are the same Area Of Study matter?”

“Imagine a male, studying Chem, bio, physics, a couple of Maths subjects, Standard English is perfect…”

“What about the kids doing 2 VET, ITP, PE, Industrial tech, do they need standard English?”

“Eng so much more than writing essays 4 exams. Lets push boundaries so studs fall in love with English”

“I know pressure of getting good results! Would like to think we can make results gr8 via love of learning. Combine both 4 synergy”

How do you decide what HSC Engish courses to run and who gets to do them??

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